Monday, 22 April 2013

Other People's Mystery Novels

In a previous post I lamented that people did not write very many epics any more (though there are some if you can find them). I like finding out how an author uses the constraints of the epic's conventions to express their worldview. But there are other highly conventional genres, too, ones well designed to express particular worldviews. Two in particular come to mind: the mystery novel and the exploitation flick. In this post I'll talk about mystery novels.

The mystery novel tends to follow a particular pattern: the social order is intact, but then that order is violated by a crime; the criminal's identity remains secret, and until the criminal is identified the social order is threatened; a protagonist, perhaps a member of the police or perhaps a private investigator or perhaps a civilian, uses investigative methods to discover who the criminal is and, usually, what motivated their crime; this information is made public and the criminal is identified; the criminal is apprehended/killed/redeemed and the social order is safely restored. Off the top of my head I can identify three ways an author would make their worldview apparent in this form. First, the community: what is the social order which is imperiled? Second, the criminal: how would a person become a criminal--what constitutes a crime and what would motivate a person to commit it? Third, the investigator: what method should a person use to discover a criminal's identity, and who could use that method? If I imagine another person's mystery novel, I am forced to think about how they imagine the social order and how they imagine epistemology/knowledge.

I don't feel like I need to elaborate this or walk through examples as much as I did in the epic post; I figure you can probably do it yourself. More people will have read mystery novels than epics. For a brief example, Carl Hiaasen's mysteries are environmentalist and anti-corporate (and usually very accepting of sex workers); in his novels, the official police channels are involved in crime-fighting but civilian investigators are also involved, often breaking laws--even to the point of eco-terrorism--to catch the bad guys. In Agatha Christie's novels, it would be unthinkable to break the law in the pursuit of justice, since they're synonymous. Crime for Christie is personal, spontaneous, emotional; crime for Hiaasen is those things, but it's also systemic. So for Christie, the law prevents and punishes crime, and all of the elements of her stories reflect this. For Hiaasen, the law sometimes enables crime, and corporations demand it. For Christie, the society which crime threatens is antithetical to crime; for Hiaasen, the society which crime threatens is complicit in crime. (Also, for Hiaasen, the threatened society includes the vegetative and geological environment, too, specifically the Everglades.) I've written already about G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Knew Too Much, which often removes the punishment/rejection part of the standard narrative. In that novel, the social order is so complicit in the crimes that to expose those crimes and reject the criminal would be more threatening to the social order than the crime itself is.

Thus, like the epic, the mystery is well-suited to expressing particular worldviews. It is less grand than the epic; it perhaps contains less. But its highly tightened focus has other certain advantages, because what it communicates, it communicates clearly. And thus, like the epic, it's also fun to imagine what another person's mystery novel would look like. It is fun to figure out what different mystery authors think the social order is. What would a feminist mystery story look like? What would a communist mystery story look like? What would a Nietzschean mystery story look like?

But, again, I must repeat that in the end such easy labels don't apply. What's really interesting is to see how different elements of worldviews match up. How does a person's sense of social order relate to their epistemology? How does a person's feminism match up with their environmentalism? (Or does it? How do the different parts of their ideas snarl, strip gears, get mired?)

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