LRK on: Why the Mystery?

(A version of this article, originally written for the 1996 MWA Edgars program, is found on  It also appeared—ironically, without acknowledgment—in the background of a trailer for Castle, a television show about a massively successful crime novelist.)

Why the mystery novel? The classic mystery, the Christie-esque whodunit, is built upon a crime and its resolution. However, since many non-mystery novels begin with a similar foundation, as an aid to the beleaguered bookseller who just wants to know where to shelve the things, the publishing world sweeps together an often mismatched lot of books and classifies them as “Mysteries.” The childlike simplicity of the move leaves one gasping.

What do we do when an established mainstream writer such as, say, Jane Smiley or Ron Hansen or, rumor has it, Michael Chabon produces something that in other hands would be shelved in the genre section? Do we call it simply a dark novel that happens to deal with a crime? Or worse, what are we to think when a known multiple offender of crime fiction such as Josephine Tey or Peter Dickinson comes up with a perfect literary gem that has only the most tenuous dependence on the form?

The whole genre question is further complicated by the undeniable fact that a great deal of crime fiction is simply pap, predigested and undemanding, suitable for the reader who either lacks the inner fortitude necessary for tackling something with fiber (moral or otherwise) or who simply doesn’t feel like chewing his or her way through something substantial after a hard day’s work. Many writers, good writers who ought to know better, focus so tightly on the structure demanded by a crime story that they lose track of the fact that they are writing a novel. Accusations of both sensationalism and trivialization are, alas, often justified.

(Since we are concerned here with the mystery field, I shall politely refrain from pointing to the pap in mainstream fiction, those books where Nothing Happens aside from 300 pages of kvetching about a divorce. True, most mainstream pap gets thrown out before it sees print, whereas with a mystery, there’s always the hope that someone will fall for a gaudy cover. The point I’m making is not who has the worse record, but the difficulties in categorizing a book.)

A crime novel is about some thing; a mainstream story can be about anything. Knowing that a book is assigned to a genre makes the world-be reader feel snug, or smug, depending on how that reader feels about the genre. To those who buy my books in order to curl up in the story, I can only say, thank you. To the smug deprecator of the mystery novel, I have to shake my head and say, You’re missing some fine writing.

So why the mystery? Because it is a strong form that nonetheless allows me to do what I wish with it, possessing both rigid structure and immense freedom. On its bones I can hang a story about things that matter, about death and pain and the dark side of the human mind, about fear and triumph and joy and the price we pay for justice. A story about the full gamut of human response.

The mystery novel, because the form is as big as I need it to be, and as intimate.

The mystery, because it’s human.