The Gospel of Details

Continuing with my self-imposed Mystery 101 course with Prof. Chesterton, I’ve been reading and re-reading many of his stories, and what amazes me is the sheer amount of detail, much of which is essential to the solution of the mystery. I’m also charmed with his formatting—a mediocre mystery, I realize, is one that simply keeps dropping clues until the climax, or resolution, is finally reached at the end. Chesterton, on the other hand uses all kinds of plot devices and distractions and never really follows a straight line from A to Z. Sometimes the culprit is revealed well before the end, and we’re left pondering the mystery of how it was all achieved. Without the many voluminous details he gives us—some of which are unimportant but others crucial in figuring out the solution, this kind of ziggy-zag plotting would never really work.

Now I certainly think Chesterton is an acquired taste, especially these days. Some readers (like myself) happily wallow in myriad details, storing them and sorting them all out as we go along; but others find them tedious or overwhelming. It’s a lot like decorating a house: Some of us are minimalists, others of us want to cover every inch of wall space. But most of us, I think, fall somewhere in the middle, which is what I’m aiming for in my mystery novel.

Details are an important tool for a mystery writer, and perform several different functions. The first, as I mentioned, helps flesh out the plot and give credence to the solution (“Oh yeah, that dark stain on the library floor…”). Details, particularly physical detail about a person’s appearance, are also a kind of shorthand, so instead of writing paragraphs full of description, you can just use a few strong details, concentrating on what is most noteworthy about the person: Is he missing an eye? Is she quick to anger, or wearing too much makeup? That sort of thing, and let the reader judge from there. And lastly, detail adds authenticity, real-ness, but it has to be presented in a unique, not boring and hackneyed way, i.e., “He had deep blue eyes,” or “She wore a red felt hat.” They are like little points of light, or illumination. Not all of it has to relate to the conclusion of the story, but some of the details must.

This is all what I call tapestry writing, and maybe mysteries make the most vivid tapestries of all. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, you have to look close at all the little scenes and people, and then step back to appreciate the work as a whole. So this should give you some clue as to where I’m going with my own book. I may be writing to market, in an established genre that won’t be considered literary. But I’m not writing anymore for attention, reputation and acclaim, but just for fun—and to keep the arteries in my brain from shutting down!

Mystery of the mystery

This week, I attended a fascinating program at Seton Hall University based on G.K. Chesterton’s beloved ‘Father Brown’ character (thanks to ‘Graceful Grammarian’ Maura Harrington Logue, for alerting me!). It included a staged  reading of ‘The Invisible Man,’ with commentary following by two Chesterton experts. It sent me right home to reacquaint myself with Mr. Chesterton, who I had not read since I was in college. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I am dipping a toe into the mystery genre, but found myself daunted at the prospect of facing a whole new type of audience, probably less forgiving than the one I have now. An audience who, I was sure, would see my attempts as amateurish, feeble or just muddled and uninteresting.  I worried that my plot was too artificial, or too easy to unravel, but how complex and layered does a plot have to be? There were also style considerations: I may be writing for genre, but I want the language to be sound; I want the book to flow naturally, and the characters to be vivid, the setting colorful, but not too distracting.

Fortunately, Chesterton provides much guidance for the would-be mystery writer, not only through the many outstanding stories he produced himself, which are so entertaining you forget the craft behind them, but also in little primers he wrote about the art of mystery and detective writing. In these I’ve found much support and encouragement. In “How to Write a Detective Story” (from his Weekly, Oct. 17, 1925) he outlines several basic principles to begin with: “The first and fundamental principal is that the aim of a mystery story…is not darkness, but light,” as he compares the resolution, or climax, of the story to the breaking of the dawn. In other words, you are working toward the reader’s epiphany,  by intentionally leaving him or her in the dark in the pages preceding. From darkness to dawn: That alone seems the simplest, yet most  effective plan for creating a mystery.

But…don’t go overboard. “The second great principal…is not complexity, but simplicity. The secret may appear complex (my italics, not his) but it must be simple; and in this also is a symbol of higher mysteries.”  Moreover, when the secret or mystery is finally revealed, it should be perfectly obvious, and not require all kinds of explanation, as seems so common on television mysteries I’ve seen. It’s as if you don’t trust the reader or viewer to completely figure it out on their own; you deny them their moment of epiphany, or sunrise.

Thirdly, the culprit (or criminal) should be in the foreground, “not in the capacity of a criminal but in some other capacity which nevertheless gives him the natural right to be in the foreground.” Well, of course! But sometimes a culprit is brought in halfway through (which immediately makes them suspect), or even toward the end; and sometimes he or she is so obviously the culprit there’s no point in continuing.

One of the interesting aspects of the Father Brown series (the stories and books, not the TV series, which I find lacking) is that “higher mystery” that Chesterton alludes to. When you introduce the idea of ethics and morality, it adds an interesting layer to the narrative, the characters and even adds to the suspense: Does the “good” character have a dark side, or does the bad guy surprisingly have a conscience? One of the things pointed out at the Chesterton presentation was that Father Brown rarely turns to government or police authorities for aid, and doesn’t necessarily turn his culprits in for civil punishment. A story might close with him talking to the murderer or criminal, perhaps offering consolation and illumination. Very interesting…

Talk about food for thought. Chesterton has given me a banquet, which I intend to consume over the next few week, in small but steady bites…