I’m not actually here today, Dear Reader. As you read this, providing you read it Saturday, March 13, or Sunday, March 14, I am in Tucson, Arizona, at the second annual Tucson Festival of Books. I’ll be participating in two festival events this year. On Saturday, I’ll be conducting a workshop on mystery writing techniques, and on Sunday, I’ll be on a panel of authors discussing historical fiction.
I’ve presented this mystery writing workshop several times in recent years, and it has always been pretty well received. I give the attendees an overview of the elements of a mystery novel, a little bit of everything, nothing in any great depth, along with a technique for teaching oneself how to construct an effective mystery, all in one action-packed hour.
Years ago, my husband brought home from the library a copy of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. He writes poetry, and symbology is important to him. I borrowed it from him, and as I read, it dawned on me that one of the defining traits of the mystery story is that it is basically a hero quest, an archetypical tale, a medieval myth in modern clothing.
Evil is done
The hero goes on a quest to right the wrong.
The hero finds the villain, confronts him, and they do battle.
The hero triumphs, and balance is restored.
All right, you’re saying, I can think of seventeen mystery novels where the hero didn’t triumph, the villain didn’t lose, yadda yadda yadda.
First of all, quit trying to mess up my theme. Second, I realize that there are plenty of mysteries in which things don’t quite work out that the killer is caught by the law and punished for his deed. But that doesn’t mean that there was no justice. In a mystery novel, a satisfying ending occurs when the right thing happens.
Consider Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot finds out who murdered the victim, all right. But when was justice done? As far as our hero is concerned, justice was done when the victim was done in by those he had horribly wronged. And so, he contrives to convince the police that the murder was committed by a phantom train conductor who has disappeared forever through the snow.
Even in the blackest of noir mysteries, where even the hero comes to a bad end, he brings it upon himself. He has a fatal flaw. Perhaps he sacrifices himself because he’s done a bad thing and this is how he atones. The dragon is slain, even if St. George goes down with him.
Letting the reader see right prevail - whatever that may entail - is what gives a mystery novel its satisfyingly mythic ending.