The Mystery of Writing Mysteries (by Terena Elizabeth Bell)

Terena Elizabeth Bell’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Playboy, The Yale Review, Juked, and other literary magazines, and she’s won grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is making a departure from the usual placement of her work with her debut in EQMM’s March/April 2023 issue with the story “Meth.” In this post she talks about what is attractive to her about mystery and crime fiction—and what is not. If you like her story “Meth” (in our issue that goes on sale next week) make sure not to miss her recently published debut short story collection, Tell Me What You See.

I didn’t think of myself as a mystery writer until last year, but maybe I just didn’t know what a mystery was. I certainly grew up reading enough Nancy Drew and watching “Murder, She Wrote” to have some idea, but that idea was not for me. Mysteries were for people in far away places: Nancy in California with her housekeeper Mrs. Gruen, Jessica Fletcher in Cabot Cove. Even Sherlock Holmes was across an ocean, but let’s face it: I found him perceptibly clever when I was eight years old but around college he began to bore me. Sherlock is a one-trick pony: a horribly rude man who points out he’s smarter than everyone else, and when you’re an intelligent child this is admirable, but as an adult it wears on you.

In other words, save these characters’ intelligence, none of them were much like me. I wrote—and still write—about the people of Kentucky, the place I’m originally from, and Louisville-native Sue Grafton excepted, you don’t see many mystery writers from there. (Even Grafton’s books were set in California.)

As a young writer, this made it difficult for me to identify with the genre. That doesn’t mean the commonwealth was not a mysterious place: When I was eight, my cousin Bubba died in a car accident my grandmother swore was murder. The sheriff’s office did not investigate, which she said proved they were in on it. She went to the scene, drove the curve, looked down in the valley where the car caught on fire. I was in my 20’s when I found out no one else believed this—no one but my grandma and me.

Bubba’s death was the traditional mystery, my grandmother a Southern Fletcher. But at the end of the case, she did not ride on the sand to chirpy music upon her bicycle. She mourned. She grieved for my cousin the rest of her days, a long 22 years after.

I’ve never written about this before, which is odd since I write about everything else. I also say I never thought of my stories as mysteries before, but to prove that, we’d have to examine what a mystery means: Does labeling a story as the genre mean that the problem is solved, or are some cases never finished?

If a story is a mystery, does it even have to have a problem or can it simply dwell in the mysterious? As a Christian, I believe in the mystery of faith: man’s inability to fully comprehend salvation. But I’d never call the Bible a mystery.

Merriam-Webster defines the word as “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain”—something that, to me, could define anything.

Back in Kentucky when I was in school, we learned about Edgar Cayce, a 1920’s clairvoyant from my hometown and one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century. Known as the Sleeping Prophet, he went into trances and, in those trances, spoke solutions: medical diagnoses, financial warnings, the location of Atlantis. He got these gifts from an angel, he claimed, who descended when he was a boy. The figure then asked what he wanted in life and Cayce said to help others. One of my uncles by marriage was a relative of his and, as a child, his parents told him, “Stay away from your crazy cousin Edgar,” each year at the family reunion.  In 1991, he was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries;” yet, he was no mystery to us back home. We didn’t wonder where he got those gifts. We knew he was a wacko nut job.

The crazy is common in Southern gothic, which is the genre I labeled my writing before. I like the unusual. I enjoy the off-beat. I would rather write about my grandmother than about who killed my cousin. The stories I write focus on the uncommon, my people and settings are always tilted. There is no whodunnit, my stories do not care; the mystery comes from context and character.

If I’d been 18—not 8—when my cousin died, would I have so readily seen it as murder? Or would I have seen it as the case of a woman who loved him, unable to come to terms with his death?

None of us were there, we don’t know what happened. He was in the passenger seat with no other body.

I write mysteries that are unsolved because in real life, there often are no answers. Life is not clean, it is not cozy. Life has mysterious faith of its own.

No. I do not write about California or New England. Instead of asking who, I ask why—a question all authors must ask themselves: Why do we write what we write? Why do we label as “genre”? Why focus on who when we could write about how? Or even where or why?

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