Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Classic English Mysteries

Theoretically, mysteries needn't center on crime, but most pure mysteries do.

In fact they typically center on the crime of murder, because it's the perfect crime for this type of story. For one thing, since dead men tell no tales, murder is inherently mysterious. It's also simple and economical. All you need is a dead body, no other action and explanations to distract from real story. Moreover, murder gives the main character, the enigma buster, the strongest reason to solve the mystery. Since the victim cannot seek justice, society must. The victim's "blood cries out to heaven for justice," and letting somebody get away with murder is as bad as murder, for it amounts to participation in the crime through consent to it. So, murder insures suspension of disbelief by putting the protagonist in a crucible with the unknown antagonist — especially when the police screw up, give up, or ignore evidence to pin the wrap on somebody, regardless of whether he's really guilty. For, the only worse thing than murder is convicting an innocent person of murder so that he takes the fall for somebody else's sin.

Here are some examples of classic English mystery:
  • "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a collection of stories)
  • The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen (a locked-room mystery)
  • Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie (a locked-room mystery)
The classic English mystery has quite a few characters, because there's a whole group of suspects. But each hardly needs much characterization, because the typical puzzle or locked-room mystery is a whodunnit game, and the reader is interested only in what is relevant — the clues. So, most authors just spice up the characters (especially the detective) with some eccentricities that give you a picture of them and bring them to life. The detective has a scientific attitude toward the other characters involved as pieces of the puzzle.

Since the main character in a mystery is dealing with somebody else's problem, and since her character doesn't grow, it can be reused. Examples of such recycled characters are:
  • Sir Authur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes
  • Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple
  • Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey
These stories have no plot in the usual sense of the word. The murder in the beginning and the discovery of whodunit in the end may be the only real events that occur. The rest of the "plot" is just the steps the detective takes to solve the crime, and, though there are twists and turns, those steps needn't be consequential or opposed.

In fact, the classic English mystery plot parallels the complications and twists of a comedy plot. It's essentially a comedy of manners with a good deal of tension relieving but quiet humor toward soft society in it. Unfortunately, that humor is missed by many critics and readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Which makes it less enjoyable to Americans, so...

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