When is a mystery not a mystery?

Yesterday I finished a book and was astounded.  Not by the quality of the writing, which was excellent.  Nor by the detail in the characters and the background, which was extremely enjoyable because I grew up in that setting and recognized the people and the places they inhabited.  No, what astounded me was that the author did such a magnificent job and then committed what is still considered one of the top no-nos for any mystery writer.

He didn’t introduce the killers until around ten pages from the end of the book.  Not a hint, no clue as to their very existence before that.

I can hear mystery readers crying “No fair!” all over the world.  Mysteries are meant to challenge the reader.  Half the fun is the head-smack at the end when we cry, “Oh, that’s what that meant!”  How can we enjoy the challenge if there’s no possible way we can even know of the killers’ existence until the very end of the book?  Much less try to ferret out the clues that give them away?  For all it’s virtues, the ending of this book was about as engaging as having the cavalry come riding to the rescue at the last moment, when we were never told there was a fort just over the hill.

Now, if a book is really good, even of literary quality, readers will forgive you for breaking a “rule”.  Or maybe not.  Anyone remember “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”?  The outrage has died down, but the embers smolder and will flare up whenever the book is mentioned in a group of two or more mystery diehards.  Because the author was the great Agatha Christie, people went on to read her succeeding books, of which, after 1927, there were a heck of a lot.  Most were written strictly by the unspoken contract between mystery writers and their readers:  i.e., to give them a fair chance to see if they can spot the clues and prove themselves at least as smart as the sleuth.  Dame Agatha was, if not wholly forgiven, at least not kicked out of the “Detection Club”.  Although from what I’ve read, Dorothy L. Sayers held onto her grudge.

For all my pleasure in the people and places of the book I just finished, I have to ask myself:  do I want to bother reading the next in the series?  What if they’re the same?  What if they, too, treat the reader as a passive unthinking consumer and not as a partner in the creation of new worlds in our minds?  I read mysteries for escape, yes, like everyone.  But I also read to stimulate my mind, to see if I can beat the author by spotting the clues and a-ha-ing the red herrings.  It’s a pact, it’s a partnership, it’s a puzzle challenge.  And it’s a promise that every mystery writer is still expected to make, that we will “play fair” with our readers.

It’s why I don’t write suspense or thrillers.  They’re a different kind of promise, a different kind of escape.  I love to read them, and they are an escape I indulge in frequently for the pleasure of it.  I love following the characters through their dangers, holding my breath and waiting to see how they escape, accepting my passivity as I munch my popcorn.  I’m just along for the ride.  It doesn’t matter whether I identify the source of the danger on the first page or the last, as long as the trip itself is a good one.  I know what I’m getting when the blurb says ‘suspense’ or ‘thriller’.

Mysteries are a different animal.  Time was when they were all blended together and called ‘crime fiction’.  But readers have branched off, created their own clubs and divisions.  They’ve forced bookstores to have separate shelving for each branch.  Readers know what they want and when.  And when the cover says ‘mystery’, I want it to be just that.  A mystery.

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