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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

What Happened?

Going beyond Colonel Mustard

Daniel Goodwin

You need to know that a brutal, sensational, seemingly senseless crime has just been committed. (I hope that’s not what you think about my writing.) Keep on reading to find out who did it and why. . . .

This is the thrilling premise and promise behind the nearly one million mysteries Canadians buy (and love) each year. In most of these books, a crime has been committed and must be solved — usually by a brilliant, sometimes hapless or maybe lucky detective who, ever since Sherlock Holmes, may suffer from a chemical dependency and a problematic domestic life.

A popular genre, mystery has long had friends in high and interesting places. One of the earliest supporters of detective fiction as a form worthy of literary appreciation, not simply entertainment, was none other than T. S. Eliot. When he wasn’t writing classics like The Waste Land, the high priest of modernist poetry regularly contributed unsigned reviews of detective fiction to The Criterion, the magazine he founded in the early 1920s when giants of the genre like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle still bestrode the earth, brandishing their mighty and baffling pens.

The aesthetic pleasure that Eliot took in the genre was so acute that he went so far as to record his five rules for detective fiction:

  1. The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises.
  2. The character and motives of the criminal should be normal.
  3. The story must not rely either upon occult phenomena, or, what comes to the same thing, upon mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists.
  4. Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance.
  5. The detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman.

Perhaps Eliot’s love of mysteries shouldn’t be too surprising, considering that his dense, intellectual poetry remains a mystery to all but the most dedicated English literature students. Reading The Waste Land requires much sleuthing, not through dead bodies but through obscure allusions littered like clues pointing to the forgotten corpses of other works.

Despite the deep literary qualities of well-crafted page-turners, many crime writers and fans still feel a need to justify their output and reading choices. They will argue that Shakespeare, with his affection for murders most foul, wrote crime fiction. One might also say the same for the Old Testament. Adam and Eve are barely out of the Garden of Eden and just starting to wear proper clothing when the first murder occurs, with Cain slaying Abel.

The secret to why we love mysteries and thrillers is given away by what we call them: they are mysterious and thrilling. But beyond offering mere entertainment, such novels appeal both to deep-seated desires and fears and to the reality of our bewildering little lives that are rounded with a sleep, to quote that great Elmore Leonard of Elizabethan theatre.

Much has been written about how mysteries offer us an antidote to a world where bad things happen without resolution or retribution. A detective who might not be superhuman still manages, often against great odds and by overcoming personal failings, to solve a case, and so stitch up a messy rent in the universe, serving as a lowly agent of the divine in restoring us to order.

As a literary novelist who loves mysteries and who has unsuccessfully (so far) tried to write one or two, I think there’s also something else at play. For most of us, our waking lives thankfully are not taken up with trying to figure out who killed whom, when, where, how, and why. Our quiet, peaceful, ordinary lives are nonetheless filled with moments of great suspense, both brief and extended. What will happen tomorrow at work or school? What career will we have? Who will we marry? Will we stay healthy? How will our children turn out as they grow older?

At a very basic level, I suspect we love mysteries because life is the archetypal mystery. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Other people, even those closest to us, can be mysteries. Why does an old friend break off contact? Why does a long-time ally suddenly thwart us? Perhaps even more interestingly, we are often our own enigma. Kazuo Ishiguro won a Nobel Prize in part by writing characters who are unaware of themselves. If we are all the heroes of our own stories, many of our adventures involve trying to figure out who we are, what we will do, or why we did something in the past. And, of course, none of us knows how it will all turn out for us in the end.

The sense that mystery is an inherent part of our lives, as in the books we love, is so strong that I would argue that all writers, even those of us who focus on literary fiction, are also mystery writers. There is always a mystery to be solved in every novel. It might not be finding out why the butler was bludgeoned with a candlestick, but if an author knows what they’re doing, it will still be enough to keep us turning the pages. It might be as simple as why someone never went back to their hometown after they grew up or when and how a couple started their affair. If we as literary novelists are doing our jobs, our books too will be mysterious and thrilling.

Daniel Goodwin is an award-winning  poet and novelist from Ottawa.