Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What constitutes a Mystery?

I was looking over amazon comments on THE BEST MYSTERY STORIES OF 2014 and repeatedly saw the comment, "These are not mysteries." Maybe at the beginning of this series, the term mystery was most often used when discussing stories with a whodunit aspect or PI or police procedural. But now crime fiction is a broader, more encompassing, term for stories that concern a crime, a criminal or sometimes  a  "mystery." Maybe this yearly collection should only include classic stories. That may be what the typical buyer expects.Or maybe it should be THE BEST CRIME FICTION STORIES. Hard to break with tradition though.

What do you expect when you pick up a book like this? Are you expecting the classic mystery story in every selection? How much leeway do you give a story that calls itself a mystery?

17 comments:

Deb said...

I think it was Jane Smiley who claimed that every novel is, at heart, a mystery because something unknown is always being uncovered. When it comes to what I expect from the label "Mystery", I'm a traditionalist: a murder (or murders) with a number of suspects, fairly-placed clues, a few red herrings, and a solution that makes me say, "Of course!" I agree that not all books marketed as "Mysteries" meet my criteria, but if the books engrossing enough, I can forget the label.

Scott Parker said...

Mystery, for me, means there is something introduced in the story that is unknown and, by the end of the story, it should probably be known. Kind of like the writerly advice about "if you see a gun on the mantle, someone better use it."

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love that kind of book but I also love books that look at things from the criminals viewpoint. There does not need to be a murder and not a murder solved.
Reading GET CARTER now, which is very different but engrossing and the writing is great.

George Kelley said...

The "it's not a mystery" complaint results from the proliferation of stories that could have been published in THE NEW YORKER. Mystery readers tend to prefer "whodunits" and puzzle stories. But these mystery collections of "THE YEAR'S BEST" include a lot of character-driven stories.

Margot Kinberg said...

Interesting question, Patti. I think I'm pretty liberal when it comes to what 'counts' as a mystery. I know there's plenty of crime fiction - even excellent crime fiction - where the 'whodunit' aspect isn't there. But I think the two terms (mystery and crime fiction) have gotten conflated.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I think there should be some crime involved to count as a mystery. Deb, as you know in the early days when mysteries meant mostly short stories (Doyle and his followers, for example) many of the stories involved stolen jewels or other crimes short of murder, though the latter has become traditional.

I don't necessarily have a problem with a non-traditional "mystery" but too many of these modern (as George said) New Yorker-type stories are just your "slice of life" pieces with no ending.

Jeff M.

Kent Morgan said...

I think crime is more appropriate than mystery for this type of collection. I definitely am not expecting a traditional mystery in each story. If that was the case, I probably wouldn't bother with the book. As for Get Carter, I need to get to it. I actually bought my copy in a bookstore in Doncaster, South Yorkshire where the book is set. If memory serves, the people responsible for the movie with Michael Caine moved the location to Sheffield.

Gerald So said...

I empathize with the comment about the lack of mystery, and I agree the difference is mysteries are usually solved; crime stories can be about the commission or effects of crime, not necessarily the solving.

As good a case as anyone can make for "crime", though, "mystery" is probably the older, more recognized term that encompasses the field.

Charles Gramlich said...

to me, in a mystery there needs to be "solving." If we know up front who the killer is, or we see the killer in action well enough to identify him, then it's a thriller. for movies, for example, Kiss the Girls is a mystery with some Thriller elements. Silence of the Lambs is a Thriller.

R.K. Robinson said...

There are so many types of mystery stories; classic, traditional, locked-room, police procedural, serial killer, humorous, psychological, the its goes on. Not all are puzzles, many don't have clues or red herrings, not all - most these days, it seems - aren't play fair mysteries. For me, a mystery must have a serious crime, usually murder in a novel length book, a dedicated crime solver (cop, P.I.) or active amateur motivated to solve said crime, some suspense and a conclusion with the crime being solved. Yes, in series sometimes the bad guy gets away, to live another day in another book, but not usually.

To paraphrase the old saying about art: I may not know mystery, but I know what I like.

Benjamin Thomas said...

I've also struggled with how to classify the various subgenres of "mystery" stories/novels. I've heard it said that a "mystery" is a story where the identity of the criminal is not known to the reader whereas a "thriller" is a story where the protagonist may not know but the reader does.

I think it is a similar conundrum to trying to describe the difference between fantasy and science fiction.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That sounds reasonable. I guess crime fiction would collect all stories where a crime in center stage. Or a criminal is center stage. Something like that. But a lot of people pick up that anthology and expect a whodunnit. I think.

Todd Mason said...

I am always enervated slightly when discussions like this act as if the commercial labels ("mystery" abused to cover all crime fiction, as with the current Mystery Magazines or labels on bookstore shelves) were to be given equal weight with any sort of informed critical assessment, since the very point of commercial labels is to help the uninformed stumble across something they might like.

For most people, I'd suggest, mystery requires the attempt to solve the questions about a crime (not necessarily murder, certainly). Thriller is an almost uselessly vague term that essentially seems to imply adventure story with some sort of criminous and often psychopathic element to it. Suspense fiction is an old and useful term for the kind of story that isn't Who Did It? so much as When Will It Happen, or Be Avoided?

And BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES is wrong on at least three counts, if taken at all literally--the filtered idea of Best (whose best, affected by what extrinsic as well as intrinsic criteria), the fact that US and Canadian stories are collected but not, say, Jamaican much less Mexican, if Canada is in the "American" remit, and that the book is indeed devoted to crime fiction of all sorts. And Otto Penzler is indeed a series editor of the broad-definition school of crime fiction, who likes stories of some attempt at characterization and all that.

Rather different than the differences between sf and fantasy, since those are by most informed definitions two different if mixable approaches (sf about what is possible, but not known to have happened yet or not yet known to have happened; fantasy about the impossible but still engaging), while mystery is clearly a type of crime fiction, as is suspense, just as fantasy and sf are types of fantastic fiction.

John said...

This is really yet another discussion on the difference between detective fiction and generic crime fiction or "thrillers". Strangely, not one person used the term detective fiction (nor the word detective!) here to help distinguish what is or isn't a "mystery".

The people who complain "This isn't a mystery" want detective fiction not crime fiction which is mostly what is being written and published today. Everyone keeps using the word "solving" as the key component in a mystery novel or story and that's what detective fiction is all about. Still, plenty of books and movies and TV shows in which the antagonist is known very early in the story (like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) can still be very well done examples of detective fiction even though most people will call the work a thriller.

Overall, I wholeheartedly agree with what Deb said at the start of all these comments. When I was a theater director I used to tell my actors that the greatest thing you can find in a script is a secret that you hold dear and then slowly reveal as the play progresses. It applies to all types of scripts just as Jane Smiley believes that all novels are mysteries. Uncovering and revealing mysteries of any kind are at the heart of all good drama -- whether performed on stage or on the printed page.

R.K. Robinson said...

Well Todd, these days even SF and fantasy seem to be mingled in the minds of readers of those genres, you can't assume rockets on one hand and magic on the other any more...

Todd Mason said...

And mixing fantasy and sf aspects is nothing new...the term "science fantasy" is another old term, and useful for those stories which intentionally mix aspects of both, whether we speak of faster-than-light travel, time travel, psi powers and such, much less Fritz Leiber/Jack Vance/Ursula Le Guin mixtures. ut the utter confusion of some. RK, comes again from confusing commercial labels for meaningful ones.

And certainly the older form of mystery plays, "Everyman" and its kin, would also play to the notion of the mystery, the speculation, the romance of all fiction.

neer said...

If I pick up an anthology like this, I'd definitely expect the editors to have included stories with a who-dunn-it element. If the stories do not have it, I'd feel cheated so I sympathise with those who are commenting on amazon. If stories do not have that element than the anthology should perhaps be labelled: Best Crime Stories or something of that sort and then my expectations would be different.