What Happened to the Mystery Genre?

As a child, I loved reading mystery stories. Even with simple books intended for children, like GooseBumps, I was more interested and engaged in the novels that included a mystery element. Along with mystery books, I also watched shows like Scooby Doo and Columbo. Yeah, it was an eclectic selection to say the least.

From there, I graduated to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their respective famous detectives. Much like horror, I found myself gravitating toward these tales of mystery because there was a sense of accomplishment and engagement in figuring out the mystery beneath story. It was a favorite past time of my childhood that continued into adulthood. However, there seems to have been a shift in the mystery genre of late.

There really does not seem to be a solution to modern mysteries as much as there are Deus Ex Machina remedies that come out of nowhere. There is a show, that I still love, called Leverage. The premise of the program is nothing original. A group of thieves with particular skills get together to rob, humiliate, and right the scales between the powerful rich and their victims. Again, not the most unique premise, but the writing and acting was enough to entice. Yet, looking back, I started to notice how often the mystery’s resolution was randomly added.

The basic structure of a mystery is simple: event happens that baffles police, intelligent individual is brought in to solve it, investigation occurs with clues peppered throughout the narrative and observations made by intelligent individual, scene where intelligent individual shows how the event transpired. It is formulaic to an extent, but the difficulty is in crafting an engaging mystery while leaving enough breadcrumbs for only a few to be able to solve without alienating the majority of the audience. It is a tight rope to walk.

Unsurprisingly, the “work around” many artists have found to fix this tight maneuvering is to simply put the solution or answer at the end without any real clues or hints to the audience that it was even a possibility. The most recent example that comes to mind is a young adult book I have just read. For the most part, the book was good. There was an intriguing mystery behind the entire story. A great “whodunnit” premise that had various twists, turns, and even a red herring or two. Unfortunately, the resolution involved information that was not even alluded to beforehand in the book; at least, not in any significant manner.

Basically, a lot of modern mystery works have trouble sticking the landing. There seems to be a belief that if the audience figures out the mystery, the artist has somehow failed. However, the audience trying, and at times succeeding, to figure out the mystery is one of the major bases of the genre. There is no error or fault in the audience solving the mystery as long as it is engaging and well executed. The true failure is in adding some random element to “outsmart” your audience.

The best mystery writers understood that their audience might be smart enough to solve their riddle, and instead of being annoyed or embarrassed, they merely tried to make the mystery worth the effort. So, maybe, current authors should look to the past for inspiration and conduct.

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