“It was Colonel Mustard in the dining room with the candle stick.” That’s one of the most easily recognizable phrases in the mystery fiction arsenal. It’s from the board game Clue and it packs a wallop when talking about the mystery genre as a whole. As a matter of fact, I’d dare say, it is the perfect definition of what a mystery truly is. It encompasses everything that is essential for a true “whodunnit”.
You see, recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about mysteries as a genre of fiction (whether in books, TV, or movies). Perhaps it has a little to do with a book that 7R is releasing this month by Hy Conrad called Rally ‘Round the Corpse (I’ll talk about that in just a bit).
Or maybe it’s because of my current work in progress. For my fans, yes, I’m hard at work on the third ENIGMA Directive novel called Devil’s Child. Well, besides it being probably the best book of the entire series so far, it has also developed into somewhat of a murder mystery. Oh, have no fear…it still has the same action and adventure feel to it that you’ve come to expect. It still has the same sense of humor. But this time, because of the direction the story takes, it just plain ol’ lends itself to the quintessential whodunnit. Um, how can this be? You might be asking. It’s a story about a cryptozoologist hunting some type of monster, right?
Well, yeah. Basically, the story finds Jack heading to New York City to investigate a series of bizarre killings. The suspected culprit? The cryptid known as the Jersey Devil! Case solved, right? Wrong. Because in this particular case, Jack discovers real quick that someone is manipulating these creatures. These deaths aren’t random maulings. They are calculated murders. And Jack will have to discover “whodunnit” before he can stop the crazed cryptids and prevent any more deaths. So yeah…it’s the typical adventure novel that I’m known for, but it’s also, most definitely a murder mystery as well.
So the entire process got me thinking? What makes a great mystery? Well, for that matter, what makes a mystery at all? Seven Realms publishes a series of hardboiled detective stories by Rick Nichols, the John Logan series. But Rick will be the first to tell you, they’re primarily not mysteries. They’re thrillers, first and foremost. Maybe Detective Thrillers, but certainly not mysteries. I would hesitate to call several other well-known series out there “mysteries” as well…despite the categories they’re placed in Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For instance, the Reacher novels. They’re good. They’re fun. But can we truly call them a “mystery”? What about James Patterson’s Alex Cross series or Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone books? Or even the exceptionally fun crime stories of Elvis Cole by Robert Crais? Nah, I’d classify them more as suspense thrillers than anything else.
So, what makes a mystery? What are the primary components that are required to make something a true whodunnit? Well, let’s take a look once more at the classic example from the game Clue I used earlier:
“It was Col. Mustard in the dining room with the candlestick.“
From an exegetical analysis of that one statement, I think we can discover the three critical characteristics of what any good mystery must have. Let’s take a look:
“It was Col. Mustard”
Rule #1 – First of all, MOST of the time (though I’ll readily admit, not all of the time), a mystery needs to be a “whodunnit.” There needs to be a question of who actually committed the thing that has become a mystery. If, like most episodes of Barnaby Jones (a series I absolutely adore, by the way), you reveal the culprit right at the beginning of the story, then it’s rarely a mystery. It can be technically be classified as “detective fiction”, but not a mystery. It’s more a suspense thriller than anything else.
“…in the dining room with the candlestick“
Rule #2 – Now I don’t want to sound like I’m contradicting Number 1, but in the off chance that the culprit is known, then there has to be a question of something that the reader must be able to solve. For instance, master of mystery Hy Conrad has written a splendidly wicked little short story where the culprit isn’t the issue at all…but rather, HOW, WHEN, and WHY the particular crime was committed. Perhaps, one of the very best examples of this is a Sherlock Holmes story called “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (my absolute all time favorite Holmes story, by the way). But the point is, these kind of stories can be considered a mystery as well…though such instances are rarely pulled off well.
Complete solution to a mystery
Rule #3 – From rule numbers one and two, we can infer the the third and final rule. A mystery has to be solvable. It’s an essential of whodunnits to throw out a plethora of red herrings, but you must also scatter in real clues into the narrative. Enough clues, in fact, that the savvy reader (or viewer, if it’s a TV show or movie) can figure it out. In other words, no last minute reveals of a character that’s never appeared in the story until the very end. No hiding the clues from the readers…making it to where only the detective knows the evidence even exists (Matlock was notorious for this). Basically, put everything out on the table. Sure, you can have an excess of stuff, forcing the reader to sift through what’s valuable and what’s not…but all the clues the detective uses to solve the crime should be available to reader as well.
|Jeremy Brett. Greatest of all Homes actors.
That’s it. Really. Not much to it. Just those three little things. And oh, the mystery doesn’t have to even be a murder. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a crime. Some of the very best Sherlock Holmes stories were those where no crime at all were committed. But there definitely needs to be a puzzle of some kind within the story. A brain teaser to tickle the gray matter.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was brilliant at this. Granted, many of his stories were infuriating because he wouldn’t always follow Rule #3. Holmes would often go off on his own for half the story, then would return at the climax to reveal the killer. Even worse were those times when the client would come in, tell their story to the intrepid detective, and he’d already have the case solved before even leaving his armchair (with just a few minor details that still needed to be revealed). But when Doyle chose to do so, he could write up one rip-roaring good whodunnit.
FYI, if you remember last week, when I listed my Top 10 favorite books and series of all times, I left out Holmes. The reason for this is simple…he’s my all time favorite fictional character. Ever. He’s within a category all his own in my opinion.
So that brings me to the next thing I wanted to discuss about Great Mysteries. You can’t have a great mystery without even more incredible detectives. So, I thought I would list my all time favorite fictional detectives (in both print and TV) and explain why they are so awesome within their genre. As I compile this list, I will try to balance it with equal number literary and TV sleuths to give a broader range (to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of many literary detectives for some reason. Can’t stand Poirot or Marples. Not a big fan, literarily, of many detectives other than Holmes actually (or derivatives there of). After all, once you’ve read the Sherlock Holmes canon, why would you need anything else? But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me share my list now. Ready? Here we go:
Sherlock Holmes – As I already stated, he’s the master of all detectives. Poe might have created the very first official detective, but Doyle perfected him. Speaking from experience as a forensic death investigator, in order to deal with the most horrid aspects of murder, one must, in many ways, teeter on the edge of being a sociopath himself (in my case, perhaps a better phrase would be “aggressively apathetic” though. lol). In this, I mean, the best ones will always be cold. Calculated. Self-absorbed. And occasionally heartless. There can be no such thing as an empathic detective. They will observe the world around them with stoic detachment and refuse to attribute moral values on the gruesomeness of what they are witnessing. To be anything less than this would mean disaster for the detective in the long run. No one can continue on seeing the things a detective sees if he/she allows themselves to become emotionally connected with the victims. They would be a nervous wreck in just a few years. Holmes will never have this issue. His nickname could easily have been Iceman and Inspector Lestrade was correct in his gratitude over the fact that the detective was on “our side.” It is this brilliant detachment, as well as Holmes’ ineptitude of social graces, that compels me to conclude that he is the greatest detective to have ever been created.
Aloysius Pendergast – When I read my first Pendergast novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the impression that came to mind about the very Southern FBI agent was that he was a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Fox Mulder, and Dr. Strange. Yes, I actually compared the agent to Marvel Comics “Sorcerer Supreme”. No, Pendergast didn’t practice magic…but his ability to solve the most bizarre of cases bordered on the supernatural. One couldn’t help but get the impression that Pendergast was somehow omniscient…which, we all know, is not true. But boy, it certainly can seem that way from time to time. Just as Holmes was often able to solve the case while seated in his armchair listening to a prospective client, Pendergast just always seems to be five steps ahead on the murder chess board. Furthermore, he can solve a case with such style. Such sophisticated hospitality. And no mystery is too weird or too unfathomable that he can’t solve it. Case in point, his first outing in a museum in the book entitled Relic (see my review elsewhere on this blog). Like my own work in progress as mentioned above, Pendergast’s first romp was against a killer cryptid with a thirst for human brains (nope, it wasn’t a zombie…but something completely different as a matter of fact). So once again, how can a creature feature possibly make a good murder mystery? Ask Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. They pulled it off beautifully with Relic by changing the questions to be asked. Instead of trying to solve “whodunnit”, Agent Pendergast focused on something just as important…what exactly is going on here? And true to my own mystery criteria, if you look hard enough, you will discover that they masterfully placed all the necessary clues for the reader to figure it out on their own. I know. ‘Cause I solved it before Pendergast did.
Batman – Okay. Maybe this addition to my favorite detectives will surprise some people. Batman? He’s a comic book superhero. He swings from buildings on a rope, does amazing acrobatics, and generally kicks the crap out of clown-faced psychopaths. He’s not a detective. But you would be wrong in assuming that. In fact, Batman is a brilliant detective. He should be. Besides being inspired in part by classic swashbuckler Zorro, Bob Kane also infused a great deal of Sherlock Holmes into the character as well. Yes, Bruce Wayne (AKA Batman) is an incredible specimen of physical human perfection, but he has also trained his mind as rigorously as his body. In fact, in many ways, one could argue that put side by side, in a contest of awesome between Homes and Wayne, the comic book detective would win out every time. To make the character even better, he was marred by the tragic loss of his parents to pursue criminals wherever they lay. While Holmes is slightly sociopathic with slight social ineptness, Batman is borderline schizophrenic with suspected multiple personality disorder. Does this make for a great detective? By no means. But it does make for a fantastic fictional character in that the cloaked hero has some major issues to deal with. In a nutshell (no pun intended), he’s definitely the most tragic of all fictional master detectives. And possibly the one that we can most easily identified with. After all, when it comes down to it, Batman is nothing more than a grieving little boy lashing out over an unfair world.
Monk – Speaking of flaws…yeah, perhaps there is no better example of a detective with issues that Adrian Monk. The former San Francisco Police detective-turned-consulting-detective has probably the worst case of OCD known to man. The guy is afraid of everything: heights, dirt, germs, snakes, dogs, cats, and just about anything else you can think of. Heck, he’s even afraid of MILK for crying out loud! I mean, come on! Who’s afraid of milk? The answer can only be Adrian Monk. And this is where his famous catchphrase “It’s a blessing and a curse” come in. You see, though the series writers (by the way, my friend Hy Conrad I’ve been talking about in this post was one of the writers and producers of the show for all eight years of its running) never mentioned this per se, an astute observer can see that Monk’s kryptonite…i.e., his fears and idiosyncrasies…are exactly what gives him his amazing powers of observations. Of course, it could be the other way around…it could be that his amazing powers of observation is what makes him nuttier than a fruitcake at Christmas. But that’s beside the point. The point of this is that Adrian Monk sees those things that no one else can and that leads to catching killers. Suffering from the murder of his wife, Monk faces the same tragic loneliness that I mentioned in Batman, but he has learned to cope with it even less than the Dark Knight. Where Bruce Wayne is quite functional in the “real” world, Adrian Monk is not. His social graces are abysmal, which leads to even more loneliness. Yet, because he’s so self-absorbed (sociopathic?), he’s completely unaware of how lonely he truly is. Double tragic…and one of the reasons, I love the character so much. Huh…I guess I REALLY like tragic heroes.
|Nathan Fillion, star of Castle
Richard Castle – As far as TV police procedurals go, CASTLE is distinctly different. As a general rule, I flat out despise procedurals like CSI, etc. Why? Maybe because I do it for a living. But mostly because I think they take themselves way too seriously which propels them into the realm of the ludicrous. Every time one of the CSI guys get bent out of shape about a case…every time they take a case so personally to the point of losing control, I laugh. Literally. In reality, most police detectives treat each case like the job that it is. With the exception of some unusual cases, the wise homicide detective never take their work home with them. So what makes me love the procedural called Castle so much? Well, because it’s not really a procedural. It’s a “whodunnit” first and foremost. And for the most part, it’s lighthearted, witty, and fun. They just don’t take themselves seriously on the show.
Okay, that’s the show…but why would I list Richard Castle himself as one of my favorite fictional detectives? Heck, he’s not even a detective, for crying out loud. He’s a novelist. And that’s exactly why I rank him among my all time favorites! He’s real. He’s normal. He’s not some super genius (like Holmes or Pendergast or Patrick Jane) who can unravel a mystery with acute observational skills and deductive logic. What makes him so appealing is that he skillfully stumbles his way through an investigation to solve “whodunnit.” I’m not talking stumbling like Inspector Clouseau. Castle is no idiot. But he is more Dr. Watson than Sherlock Holmes. Just a regular, normal, every day guy who gets to ride along with cops on murder investigations and throw his two cents in. Plus, of all the detectives I’ve mentioned, he’s probably most like me. His style of thinking is not deductive logic like most well known sleuths. He is what is known as an inductive lateral thinker (like myself)…meaning, he problems solves based on instinct, gut, hunches, and imagination. The lateral thinker finds himself faced with a problem, then begins coming up with a solution built upon the concept of trial and error…process of elimination. That is Richard Castle and that’s what makes him so refreshing among the pantheon of Sherlock Holmes clones that have been created through the years.
Patrick Jane – Finally, perhaps one of the most enigmatic and marvelously impish of all fictional detectives would have to be Patrick Jane from the Mentalist. This character, though obviously inspired by Sherlock Holmes as well, is a creature of exquisite contradictions. Jane is a character who once made tons of money playing a charlatan’s game of psychic reader. Using mentalist skills he developed in the sideshows he was raised in, Jane was able to fleece many people out of their money for the security of knowing that their deceased loved ones were doing fine in the afterlife. But Jane’s arrogance couldn’t be quenched. He needed more, so he began helping law enforcement track down a notorious serial killer known as Red John. Then, one night, after Jane ridiculed Red John on national TV, the killer murders his wife and daughter. From that point on, Patrick Jane gives up his life as a con artist and begins helping the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) track down his family’s killer (as well as any other murderers that might come along every week). That’s the basic premise of the show.
Now, here’s why Patrick Jane is such a wonderful fictional character. As a detective, he has many of the same skills that are so necessary for any skilled investigator. Exceptional observation skills. An acute ability to read people (he often acts as a human lie detector). An extremely sharp, analytical mind. And finally, no real attachments to any human relationship…giving him nothing really to lose. And therein lies the sweetest of all characteristics regarding Jane. He simply doesn’t care about anything else but two things: 1) bringing justice to Red John (not necessarily legal justice, either) and 2) he doesn’t care what he has to do to accomplish goal #1.
If Sherlock Holmes is a borderline sociopath, I would dare say that Patrick Jane is a full blown one. He simply doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He doesn’t care what he has to do. The ends, in his mind, always justifies the means. He is completely amoral, though with an exceptionally well-developed code of honor. An honor system that probably only he truly understands. At the same time, Jane isn’t heartless to everyone. He does care about his CBI team (as long as they don’t get in his way of his goals). But even more attractive about the character is that he’s by no means a block of ice or a brick wall. He has an exceptionally child-like wonder over the simplest of things…the beauty of a mountain forest at sunset, a child’s toy, or a new magic trick. One gets the sense that while he is working the case, he is thoroughly amusing himself. It almost seems that once that amusement stops, he’ll give up the chase and probably disappear completely from the world. No, of all the detectives I’ve mentioned so far, I believe that Patrick Jane is by far the most complex and well-developed of all the characters. He has all the strengths of the greatest of detectives, but no one has as many flaws than he. It is this duality that truly makes Patrick Jane an exceptionally appealing fictional detective.
I have so much more to write on this subject, but I look at my clock now and I realize I’ve spent so much time on this post than I normally do (almost two days, as a matter of fact). I think it’s time to end it. I’m sure some of you will be disappointed that I haven’t mentioned other more notable detectives out there…but that’s exactly where you come in. I always want to know your opinions. I want to know the characters and books that you enjoy. And in this particular case, I’d like to know your favorite detectives and why!! So please leave a comment and tell me. I’m always looking for new detective heroes to discover. So many you can share one with me today.
Oh, by the way, I mentioned the brand new mystery novel Rally ‘Round the Corpse by Hy Conrad! I definitely wanted to let you know about it in case you were interested. Hy, as I’ve said, is absolutely the master of mystery. I’ll tell you more about him in the coming weeks…but trust me on this. He definitely understands the three rules of the “whodunnit” and his newest book will have you stumped ’til the very end! If not, it will certainly give you a great roller coaster ride as you try to piece the puzzle together. Just click on the link below to be taken to the Amazon Kindle page of the book: http://www.amazon.com/Rally-Corpse-Adventures-Mystery-ebook/dp/B007ZXPEOM/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2
Anyway, like I said, check out the page…get the book and enjoy! Oh, and in the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing a few mini-mysteries written by Hy Conrad himself that will culminate in a giveaway of a Kindle Fire!!! Stay tuned for that!