TO HAUNT OR NOT TO HAUNT?

With Halloween just hours away, I thought I’d try to answer a couple of questions that sometimes come up at the writers’ conferences and conventions we attend: 1) Does EQMM publish stories involving the supernatural? And 2) If not, why not?

The answer to the first question is simple: Yes, but only very infrequently.

The answer to the second question—which seems to be demanded by the rarity of our excursions into supernatural terrain—is complicated. It begins with tradition. EQMM was launched with the aim of bringing together between common covers a wide variety of different types of crime and mystery fiction. Founding editor Frederic Dannay boasted about this in his first issue, announcing that readers would find stories of the “hardboiled” school, the “modern English school,” the “modern American school,” and even stories fusing humor and mystery. He was right to point to the variety of the new magazine’s content as one of its pivotal features, for he would break new ground by publishing gritty, realistic stories alongside classical mysteries and other fare. It’s my view that in bringing a number of  different subgenres together in EQMM, Dannay played a crucial role in weaving mystery and crime fiction together into the overarching genre we have come to celebrate today (at events such as Bouchercon, which turns 50 tomorrow, on Halloween, as the 2019 convention begins in Dallas!). But the supernatural crime story, which has become so popular on today’s mystery scene, was only sparely represented in EQMM in Dannay’s day, despite his goal of covering the whole genre. And this may go back to Ronald Knox and his famous “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction,” published in 1929, number two of which was: “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”

A writer of detective stories himself, Knox was an important influence on Britain’s Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, saw the publication of their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, in the very year that Knox formulated his commandments for the detective story or  “fair play” mystery. Although they gave a distinctly American twist to the Golden Age story, Dannay and Lee were writing very much in the tradition Knox encapsulated—a tradition in which the model for the mystery story was a game (the “grandest game in the world,” according to John Dickson Carr) in which the reader could play along and attempt to solve the crime, given all relevant clues by the author (thus the term “fair play”). When EQMM was sent out into the world more than a decade later, it contained many stories that could not be considered detective stories in Knox’s sense at all—in fact, Raymond Chandler, whose work would eventually appear in EQMM’s pages, formulated his own ten commandments for the detective novel, and they provided a model for a very different type of story. It is worth noting, however, that although Chandler’s commandments nowhere include the word “supernatural,” commandment number three—“It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.”—does, in effect, seem to exclude all supernatural elements. So stories involving the supernatural were not considered by either major school of mystery writing—the classical or the hardboiled—to be part of the genre in EQMM’s early years, though for reasons specific to each. By taking a quick look at those reasons, I think we’ll be able to see some ways in which the supernatural tale was able to open doors into the contemporary mystery genre.

For the Golden Age writer, the objection to the introduction of supernatural agency to a detective story was, essentially, that it would be unfair to the reader. For if some force affecting events but operating outside of the laws of nature (or human nature) were to turn out to be at the heart of the puzzle, readers would be unable to solve the problem from clues dropped by the author—they would have nothing to go on, it being impossible to know just what to expect from a supernatural agent. It’s tempting to think, therefore, that a fair-play mystery requires realism, but in fact, I think what’s requried has little to do with realism in the sense in which that term is usually applied to literature. One of the criticisms leveled at writers of the Golden Age school by hardboiled writers was that their stories were artificial constructs, without credible characters or motivation, focusing too exclusively on a complex puzzle. They urged “realism” as an antidote to Golden Age artificiality. What a fair-play puzzle mystery does require, I think, is not realism but a rational framework—a framework in which things take place according to patterns the reader can understand and have a chance to predict, rather than coming entirely out of left field. But I think this need not necessarily exclude the supernatural.

An example that comes to my mind in this regard is the story “Normal” by Donna Andrews, from the May 2011 issue of EQMM, in which the characters almost all have some supernatural powers, but what those powers are, and the limits to them, is made known to the reader early in the tale. So there are rules, and the rules allow for predictability and deduction. I suspect that even Ronald Knox would have considered such a story to be in the Golden Age tradition, even though the characters are supernatural.

But what about the objection to supernatural agency made by the hardboiled school—that a detective story should be about real people in a real world? Many have argued that Chandler’s own beloved character Philip Marlowe is far from “real”—that he is an idealized hero, unrealistic in his incorruptibility. But Chandler felt Marlowe must be so in order for his books to have moral weight, and his objection to the artificiality of the Golden Age mystery was, I suspect, primarily that they treated crime and its solution as a game, rather than striving at the same time to address its moral dimensions. And if that is at the heart of his commandment that the story should be about real people in a real world—that it should relate to genuine and profound moral concerns—I think that stories involving the supernatural need not necessarily be ruled out, for some of the most notable recent examples of such cross-genre mysteries are clearly intended to address moral issues. The several supernatural series of Charlaine Harris (the author who opens our current issue—November/December 2019) seem to me to belong to that category; some of the stories can be seen as allegories, addressing social and moral dilemmas that could not be as easily conveyed to readers using human characters.

For the reasons just mentioned, I think it makes no sense to attempt to exclude the supernatural from our genre—and our genre would be poorer if we did. But there is a reason—and I think a good one—for supernatural tales to remain rather rare and special inclusions for EQMM. We’ve noted that writers can sometimes achieve similar ends to what is achieved with more conventional crime stories using supernatural agency, but surely a tale involving the supernatural is meant to do something in addition to that. It seems to me that it is precisely the “spooky” element—that is, the element of the inexplicable—that attracts readers to such tales and provides the frisson of fear they seek. In a mystery story, what had been inexplicable is generally explained by the end and some moral resolution or at least redemption is attained. But is it not true that in tales of the supernatural, even if the murder itself is solved by rational means, something inexplicable must remain? Some sense of what we cannot fathom—that otherworldly presence? That makes for a different kind of reading experience, and it may draw a different type of audience from the mystery, and so, although there is clearly some crossover between the mystery and the supernatural story (and their respective readerships), the latter will probably never be EQMM’s bread and butter, but instead, a spice.

Happy Halloween to all, and congratulations and good luck to authors and readers enjoying it at the special 50th anniversary Bouchercon, especially our best-short-story nominees: Barb Goffman and Art Taylor for the Anthony and Macavity; Twist Phelan and S. J. Rozan for the Shamus; Craig Faustus Buck for the Macavity—as well as Doug Allyn for winning the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement and Peter Lovesey for being Bouchercon’s Guest of Honor for Lifetime Achievement!—Janet Hutchings

This entry was posted in Books, Ellery Queen, Fiction, Genre, Magazine, Supernatural and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to TO HAUNT OR NOT TO HAUNT?

  1. V.S. Kemanis says:

    Thank you for the history and analysis–very informative.

  2. Yoshinori Todo says:

    A very interesting, insightful, and–as always–well-written article!

    It seems to me that what’s at the core of the issue is whether something could (however unlikely) or could not (under any circumstances) happen in real life. In other words, what’s important is the DEGREE of the supernaturalness, or the way people would perceive it: a full-blown supernatural event is not permissible, whereas a touch of the supernatural, if done correctly, might be.

    For example: In real life, if a murder, a theft, or some other crime occurred, would the investigating authorities accept an explanation involving the supernatural? Point the finger to a ghost or a malevolent spirit or perhaps big foot (or some other legendary creature) as the culprit? Definitely not, I would say–at least in 99,9% of the world. Hence, that explanation wouldn’t fly in mystery fiction, either.

    On the other hand, would the investigating authorities, maybe in desperation, accept help from a psychic or prophet in solving the crime? Well, this is more likely to happen in real life. In fact, there are documented cases of psychics working with police to bring criminals to justice, locate a missing person or a dead body, etc. Whether these were in fact supernatural deeds or just some type of strange coincidence is up to debate, but storylines based on such events may be acceptable in mystery fiction, as well. Again, the difference, in my view, is the DEGREE of supernaturalness: a truly inexplicable supernatural occurrence is a no-go, whereas a touch or hint of the supernatural might be, in the hands of a skilful writer, permissible.

    Sure, there are also tales, where ALL the characters are ghosts or supernatural or imaginary beings, etc. but I personally don’t consider them to be “true” mystery fiction in the strictest sense. It’s probably more accurate to characterise them as parodies or satires of mystery fiction, or else, supernatural fiction with mystery elements.

  3. Janet Hutchings says:

    Thank you all for your comments!! And Yoshinori Todo, you have an interesting take on how to draw the line!

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