Recently, I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by mysteries. Um… Mysteries. Mystery books (though I suppose that inherently means a fascination with mysteries, i.e. secrets, puzzles, etc.).
Partly, this has to do with the way that I write, which is headfirst, without planning, with the assumption that everything will come together into a coherent whole by the end of the book, play, poem, whatever. This seems too be in direct opposition to what a Mystery is, since it involved there being a mystery, and that mystery being hidden, and then satisfactorily uncovered by the end of the book. Which would seem, inherently, to call for some planning.
My version of planning (re: writing) involves reading a lot about a certain subject and hoping that some of it embeds itself in my subconscious, only to come out unawares while I’m actually putting words to paper. And so we have
Shortcut #61: John Dickson Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part
John Dickson Carr (find relevant Wiki here) is an early writer of mysteries, writing during the Golden Age when, apparently, mysteries were held to stricter standards than nowadays. Namely, they generally had all the parts of the puzzle laid out before the reader so that, if the reader was clever enough, they’d be able to figure out the solution to the mystery before the detective did.
Carr was also a master of the locked room mystery, where a murder has been committed in an apparently impossible fashion (someone is killed in a room locked from the inside; if it wasn’t suicide, then how did the killer do it?). The problem with this sort of writing is coming up with a new, yet believable, way that the murder has occurred. Though one way out of the always-new trap (with the focus and strength of a book firmly on the new methods of death delivery; c.f. Saw) is an equal or greater focus on character.
This is the only Carr book I’ve read so far, and it might be (if I recall correctly) the only Golden Age Detective novel I’ve read, as well. Carr’s signature detective is Dr. Fell, who doesn’t even appear in Till Death Do Us Part until well into the novel. Instead, the novel focuses on Dick Markham, a man whose soon to marry Lesley Grant, except that Lesley soon falls under suspicion of murder. A suspicion, of course, that Dr. Fell clears quite handily in the last section of the book.
What interested me most about this book both as a reader and a writer was that the mystery involved a lot of talking. I mean, a lot of talking. In fact, most of what happens in this book is talking, description of what happened, of what people thought happened, of conversations experienced first-hand (by the reader), of conversations reported, and the careful working out of problems through application of logic (Hello, Dr. Gideon Fell!).
Sure, there’s some action (and it’s good action) near the end of the novel once the villain is revealed, but that action is beside the point. The point is the mystery and the solving of the mystery. Sure, that point is driven forward (in this case) by Markham’s desire to prove Lesley innocent, but it’s the point of the novel (and all mysteries?) all the same.
In any mystery I write (and KINGDOMS OF GOOD AND EVIL is one, at least in part), the careful application of logic to a problem, and the resultant solution, is unlikely to be the focus, at least in dialogue between characters. But it’s fascinating to me how a book can be mostly dialogue, and that dialogue mostly the recounting of events in various permutations, and how that alone can be utterly engrossing.