W.W. Mauck made his fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s November/December 2022 issue with the story “A Ghost for Marcy’s Garden.” In case you missed the story when the issue came out, the author recorded it for our November 1, 2022 podcast, which you can find here: link. In this post, he talks about what attracted him to the mystery genre. To illustrate his interesting observations about the form, he discusses Anne Swardson’s story “Uncaged,” from EQMM’s September/October 2022 issue. If you have not yet had a chance to read that story, we’d like to warn you to stop reading this post when you reach the point at which the story is introduced. Full plot details are revealed! —Janet Hutchings
I admit, the Mystery Genre wasn’t my first love. Like a lot of people, I grew up reading what interested me, and as a ten-year-old boy whose favorite cartoon was The Hobbit, I was naturally interested in fantasy and science fiction. Give me Lord of the Rings, the Ender’s Game saga, anything Harry Potter, and I was a happy kid.
Then I got older, grew some atrociously large, red sideburns, and my tastes became more complicated. Not to undermine the complexities hidden in fantasy and science fiction—there are plenty, obviously—but what I’m really talking about here is the satisfaction you have when your expectations are at once subverted and satisfied.
A number of devices fall into this category—twists, reversals, all forms irony, Chekhov’s gun and its many variations.
Yet only one word captures everything, and that word is the “reveal.”
Like in a mystery (or thriller, depending on the context):
Killer gets a call. It’s the police. He expects the call has something to do with his missing co-worker, as his co-worker’s body is lying on the garage table in front of him. Instead, the police tell him it’s about the stolen car he never reported. They towed it last Friday, the same day the co-worker was seen getting snatched outside her apartment. Since the co-worker’s residence and the tow-site are on opposite sides of town, the killer’s situation has now improved. He can make up any semi-plausible excuse, then use that excuse as his alibi, which will keep him off the police’s radar.
Naturally, further implications can be explored here, such as the next reveal, when, say, one of Chicago’s most intrepid police officers discovers the hoodlums responsible for stealing the car. But I think you get the point.
A suggested cause and effect. Behind the effect is a suggested cause that leads the killer and/or the audience to believe the police have found him out. The information that is then revealed at once subverts that expectation and satisfies the chain of events in a clear and logical way. Not to mention the irony, which is in itself a form of revelation, as the audience is brought in on the more-or-less ominous joke—to the killer, at least—that the police are speaking to the killer and yet are so very, very far away from understanding he is, in fact, the killer.
So, that’s one example. Situational irony, with the reveal nested in the information flow given to the characters and the audience.
(On a meta note, another reveal could be where I now reveal the name of the story/and or movie from which I’m pulling this example; that’d be cool, but I’m afraid it’s just whole-cloth).
Reveals aren’t only in mysteries; they’re in everything.
You see it in the unmasking of character motivation, character identity—think Star Wars, Darth Vader, and you’re on the right track—and especially in world-building.
But here’s what I’m getting at.
Having a good reveal is an important part of storytelling that often goes overlooked, in everything but mysteries.
In mysteries, stories live and die by reveals. The set-up can start anywhere, while the plot generally follows the same line: a question is raised, usually about a crime or a body—whodunit, howdunit, your typical suspects—and at the end the answer is revealed.
One might even call this event The Big Reveal.
And I love it, because there’s just no compromise.
While fantasy and science fiction can often get away with having poor reveals and remain solid stories, mysteries seldom can, which in my opinion makes for a better experience.
Think back to the last five books or short stories you’ve read and ask yourself which ones left you feeling most fulfilled. Then, afterward, if they were mysteries, ask yourself if they subverted your expectations in some way, gave you what you wanted, but differently.
I’d bet my bottom-dollar bill that they all did, because chances are, you wouldn’t have recalled those stories if they didn’t in the first place.
Still don’t believe me?
Check out the September-October issue of EQMM. (Spoiler Alert.)
In it, you’ll find the compelling story “Uncaged” by Anne Swardson. The premise is simple. As Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” In “Uncaged” it’s the second: set in Paris, just after the Occupation, a Henri Racine moves next door to the POV character, a twelve-year-old girl, and her family. At first, he seems a little creepy, licking his lips as he privately agrees to the twelve-year-old’s proposed tour-slash-jaunt into town. And never mind that he never asks her for her name, but merely refers to her as mademoiselle, which is in fact the only name we, the audience, are given.
But Mr. Racine’s ostensible creepiness is just a red herring. He travels with a canary, locked up in a small bird cage, and when young mademoiselle asks why, we learn some about his job and motivation.
“I find bad people,” he says. So obviously he can’t be all that creepy.
But here’s the rub. Mr. Racine is meeting in secret with the family housekeeper, Simone, who had a son, about mademoiselle’s age, whom the Nazis murdered during the Occupation. After being questioned, Simone tells the young mademoiselle that it was mademoiselle’s father who was responsible for her son’s death. There’s even a picture of the father in uniform, with his Nazi buddies. Proof. So now the full truth of Mr. Racine’s visit is revealed: He’s a Nazi hunter, and the Nazi he’s hunting is the young girl’s father.
We might have put that together when the girl’s mother suggested Mr. Racine might be a “Jew”—or perhaps when we learn that Mr. Racine finds bad people—but now the situation is unequivocal.
And it comes just in time for the final scene, when, after secretly freeing the canary, the young mademoiselle lures Mr. Racine to the balcony, and like she did with the bird, sets him free (metaphorically, one might add, from his obsession to hunt Nazis). And there we have it—the Big reveal, whereupon we discover that this seemingly innocent child is just as ruthless and evil as her father, even if her motivations are somewhat lightened by her desire to protect her family.
Reveal-on-top-of-reveal, and that’s discounting the constant question-and-answer juggling that Anne Swardson so artfully performs throughout the story.
Could we have seen any of this coming? Maybe, but I definitely didn’t.
The point is, the most-obvious ending, where the Nazi hunter wins, is subverted in a rather ironic—there’s that word, again—way, which satisfies the reader’s desire for a logical conclusion. Because, unfortunately, the good guys don’t always win, and sometimes the greatest threat to a person really is a child’s ignorance (or in mademoiselle’s case, undeveloped empathy).
This is what the mystery genre gets right. And that’s why you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single popular mystery story that doesn’t involve some kind of reveal, where the writer turns the reader’s expectations upside-down.
Okay, okay, maybe I’m preaching to the choir here.
I’m just a guy with an undergraduate in English literature who reads and writes by day and does what amounts to data-entry by night.
I make no illusion that I’m the authority in this matter.
But it’s in this one concept that I’ve learned to love mysteries, and it’s how I’ve come to believe that reveals are the core element that makes a mystery worth reading.
And, if you’re reading this, chances are that you too have a taste for mystery, and if there’s one thing folks who love mystery don’t lack, it’s a strong understanding of twists and revelations. Because, again, it’s the lifeblood of the genre. Every story has some level of reveal in its telling—I would even argue that good reveals are essential to all good stories, from the development of the plot, all the way through to the climax—but mysteries make a point out of portraying them.
Without that unexpected answer to that single burning question, a question you may not have even known you were asking, a mystery story falls flat.
So, I haven’t lost my love for fantasy and science fiction, but I do find I’m much more inclined to pick one of those stories up if there’s a little bit of mystery involved.
Though I can’t place the quote right now, I once heard someone say mysteries are about looking forward and backward at the same time.
If that’s true, I believe it’s in the reveals, where this past and future converge, where the audience extracts the most meaning from a story. It’s also often where biases go to die, and where the writer attempts to lay bare a story’s most intriguing, entertaining secrets for all to see and, hopefully, to enjoy.