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…

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