The Magic of Mystery

Day 2:  The I-Wish-I-Was-at-Bouchercon Party

Sometimes I hear people refer to mystery as puzzles, little brain teasers for the reader to figure out.  That may be one approach to writing mystery, but it isn’t the approach I use.  To me, mystery is about magic.

When a character sort of “peeps” in and out of the main storyline, you get the feeling there’s something more going on than what is apparent in front of you.  You see tidbits of his life, unconnected, that slowly begin to form an image in your head.  The story isn’t told from his point of view so the narrator can only tell you what he knows of this person.  That’s when the reader starts developing her own story for him–and some feelings.

It’s the storyline behind the storyline that creates magic in a mystery novel.  It’s the plot that isn’t on the page.  Readers don’t want to blithely determine “who did it” as much as they want to know why, how, who it affected, and maybe even gain some insight into the human condition.  That character doesn’t have to be the killer to show them wisdom. 

Like in life, I think the most interesting moments occur at the intersection of seemingly disparate human lives.   It can be on a first date, on your college trip abroad or when you leave town alone to attend a conference.  When on your own, you reach out to strangers for conversation or to get directions.  A stranger might ask you a question–and bling, we get that magic of finding something in common, something to share.  We find a connection.

Even in workaday life, if you see someone on a daily basis but don’t speak, their life can generate a lot of curiosity.  Think of people you “know” from the  gym, the dry cleaners, or of regular customers at your shop.  You don’t know anything about them except maybe how they smile–or how they look down when you try to make eye contact.  Their body image creates storylines in your mind.  You do notice when they suddenly appear with an arm sling or a huge bruise on the right cheek.  You might ask about that sling, but do youask about the bruise–if she’s a woman?

To generate magic, create intersections for human lives.  Crime fiction gives us all sorts of opportunities to throw people together who should have nothing in common.  A detective might “investigate” the mall walker who may have seen something as she turned the corner past JC Penney’s.  Maybe it was just a glimpse from the corner of her eye, but maybe that glimpse was of a person she sees every day.  A person who already has a storyline in the mall-walker’s mind.

And police wonder why two people never see the same thing?

Everything is perception.  What’s real and what’s imagined?  Where does our mind’s story of someone crash headlong into their real-life reality?  What does misperception tell us about ourselves and about society?

Those are the questions that make crime fiction interesting.  Those are our fifty-thousand watt generators of magic.

This post is part of the I-Wish-I-Was-at-Bouchercon Party in the mystery room at Absolute Write Water Cooler.  Pop on over to see what else is going on at our virtual con.