The Mystery About Mysteries


So many people love a good mystery, and the more complex it is, and the bigger “Gotcha” moment that one brings makes them all the more lovely. Why is this? What is the attraction with a whodunit that has us stepping up to the mystery bar and ordering another tall one?

What is the mystery about a mystery?

Why did the Perry Mason series last nine years on television? Or Murder, She Wrote crank out new episodes for a dozen years? Or Diagnosis Murder continue for eight seasons?

Masterpiece Mystery began its long run in 1980, and although it took a few years’ hiatus, it still produces wonderful programs today, including the most recent one, titled Endeavour, which premiered in the United States on Sunday, July 7.  Recently Inspector Lewis finished its run, and later this year Foyle’s War should do the same. These are delicious mysteries.

Forget about television, what about the cinema? Countless mysteries fill the shelves of producing companies since nearly the inception of film. What makes Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and Witness for the Prosecution captivating, must-see drama (along with a plethora of other titles?)

How about books? There are too many authors to list. I love Agatha Christie—as can be attested by the three movie titles above—and apparently so did literally the entire world for over half a century, as attested by the fact that she is number three all-time in publication, behind the Bible and Shakespeare.

Here is what earns the highest marks for me when it comes to a mystery. I crave the complex, and a story with numerous subplots that require unraveling is an ideal one. Of course I want to solve the mystery prior to the end of the book, but I also love being legitimately fooled. Legitimately fooled is when the author presents the clues in the context of the story and does not conjure up an obscure killer with an otherwise undiscovered motive. Being unfairly fooled is a reason not to read anything else by the author

The complex does not need confine itself to mysteries, as they can exist in any drama. An example is from the movie The Sting. After watching and enjoying the movie a number of times I finally realized that the “sting” in the movie is directed more towards the audience than against Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). The writer fooled us as well as the character in the story, and that made my admiration for the work abound.

Charles Dickens also mastered the complex, weaving an intricate story with multiple subplots and connecting them together late in the story. Reading one of his stories, especially A Tale of Two Cities, is similar to admiring a piece of art hanging on a wall and not really seeing the subtle touches until a later examination.

So what makes a good mystery? In my opinion it has to be complexity. We demand resolution, but we demand a satisfactory resolution as well, meaning one that is logical and ties up the loose ends for us, even though some things may be open-ended.

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