Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Mystery Genre

I suppose the term ‘mystery story’ is basically a huge umbrella term for any number of subgenres: the detective story, the romantic suspense, etc. Perhaps a necessary element is crime, and more specifically murder, and the seeking of a successful solution to the mystery at hand. Suspense arises in the course of the seeking of said solution, which laces those pursuing the perpetrator and/or innocent victims in jeopardy. Yet, it seems that much of what we consider ‘mystery stories’ doesn’t fall neatly into these categories.

As Joyce Carol Oates writes in the introduction to The Best American Mystery Stories 2005, ‘crimes can occur without mystery. Mysteries can occur without crimes. Violent and irrevocable actions can destroy lives but bring other lives together in unforeseeable, unimaginable ways.’

In reading this collection of twenty stories, I found myself enjoying the stories that didn’t neatly fit into the classic definition of the ‘mystery story.’ Edward P. Jones’s ‘Old Boys, Old Girls,’
follows a man in prison and afterwards, yet there is no real mystery to be solved only the effects of the man’s lifestyle and incarceration to witness as he cautiously reunited with a family he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Daniel Orozco’s ‘Officers Weep’ is an interesting tale of two cops falling in love told through the device of a police blotter. Scott Turow’s ‘Loyalty’ is about a man struggling to find himself after leaving his wife, with the crime elements only incidental to the plot of romantic/filial love.

Oates picked these stories because they embody a different way of looking at the genre so defined by Sherlock Holmes and Law and Order. It’s not necessarily about the crime and apprehending the suspect, but instead about how situations that very well may be criminal affect those going through them, whether as perpetrator or victim. Or bystander for that matter.

This past year, I have begun to read more and more fiction classified as ‘mystery’ because of some of the fiction marketed as ‘literary’ had large mystery elements and were some of the stories I enjoyed the most. I am prone to believe, as Michael Chabon has said time and again, that genre classifications are hindering and unnecessary, so I don’t want to compile some sort of list that surveys what I personally like and dislike about the nebulous ‘mystery genre.’

Instead, I’d just like to say that novels such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson and In the Woods by Tana French are some of the best fiction I’ve read this year, and are two novels that a year before I probably never would have looked into I wasn’t a person who really read ‘mystery.’

None of us are immune to being elitist or viewing the world with blinders, especially when it comes to choices we make in our entertainment. Just a reminder that you, and definitely I, may be missing some damn good stuff.

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