The Mystery of the Mysterious Mystery

You’re really missing on something if you’re not a member of the Golden Age of Detection Facebook group – first because I’m a very active poster there and second because the ratio of great posts and interesting discussions is extremely high. We even have some  controversy sometimes, though never escalating into outright flame wars – the people there all are polite and well-behaved. The latest instance of mild yet firm disagreement between members is over the definition of a mystery and whether some books fit the bill – or not.

It all began with a tweet from the MWA outlining their definition of the genre – namely any kind of book in which crime plays a central role. Too vague and too broad for some, including yours truly, but it launched an interesting conversation. Where the things got really started was when Bev Hankins from the excellent My Reader’s Block blog brought our attention upon Charlotte Armstrong’s A Dram of Poison, questioning whether it actually qualified as a mystery despite it winning an Edgar for Best Novel. Curtis Evans while a fan of the book also expressed similar reservations. I found myself nearly alone in defending the status of Armstrong’s novel as mystery fiction.

1755326A Dram of Poison is indeed an odd kind of a mystery, assuming of course that it really is a mystery. It has no murder, no violence of any kind and no detective. Anthony Boucher himself in an otherwise laudatory review admitted that it was like nothing else in the genre. The book is usually labeled as a suspense novel for lack of a better word but even that is not entirely satisfying. What makes its status even more puzzling is that it won an Edgar despite not conforming even to the MWA’s broad definition of the genre, the book being devoid of any criminal element. Does it have a mysterious element then that would fit a literal definition? This is where Bev and Curtis on one hand and me on the other part ways. My take is that the book has a tiny but genuine puzzle element at its core – whatever happened to the bottle? – which receives a clever, almost chestertonian, answer in the end, making it an admittedly unorthodox but « real » mystery. Bev and Curtis disagree, arguing that the puzzle is but a pretext and that Dram is basically a « straight » novel with only a passing likeness to the genre.

md30407243152This prompted me to start another thread asking everyone for their definition of a mystery and what were the genre’s necessary attributes. Is being a mystery a matter of theme, tone, structure? Are « mystery » and « crime novel » necessarily the same thing? Is the presence of a criminal element really required? I used as an example Eric Ambler’s rarely discussed and yet immensely enjoyable The Schirmer Inheritance as an example of a book that puts received wisdom to the test. The book is about an investigation – a lawyer looking across Europe for a missing heir – and there is indeed a mystery at its core – what happened to the last of the Schirmer family? – but though having plentiful of action and adventure it is nearly completely devoid of any criminal element. What kind of book is it then?

Another even more problematic case, and one I didn’t bring up on the FB board, is that of the book that « won » my Best Novel of the Year « prize » back in 2006, William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water. Depending on your mood or persuasion this novel belongs either in the sci-fi or horror genres or in both. There is however also a claim for calling it a mystery if we go by the literal definition of the genre. The book after all deals with the investigation of mysterious events, including a possible violent death, and provides a solution in the end, though not one Mgr. Knox would contenance – assuming he understood it at all. I realize supernatural/sci-fi solutions are a put-off to many in the mystery community, but it’s worth remembering that early crime and detective writers were not always adverse to them; also what are we to do of Carr’s The Burning Court then? Should we dismiss early detective novels like The Notting Hill Mystery or The Dead Letter because they dabbled into the paranormal? edge-of-running

The line to me is not between the traditional mystery and the crime novel, but between the mysterious and the non-mysterious. A mystery in which nothing is hidden from the reader is not a mystery any more than a book without a crime is a crime novel. Words need to have some meaning or we may as well call a fish a rabbit. If they truly believe that any book with a criminal element to be their constituency, then the MWA should change their name and even consider finding another patron saint, for Poe certainly wouldn’t recognize himself in some of their recent choices.

A mystery is a mystery is a mystery – and A Dram of Poison is one. :p

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