April 30, 2002

A Column by Byron McAllister


What about that word "mysterical"? I've been wondering whether it's a blend of "mystery" with "hysterical." I could ask the editor, but e-mail takes a little time, and I hate to bother her, and anyway, it would be quicker to try the dictionary. I have several, and a couple of encyclopedias.

Unfortunately, no such word occurs in any of my sources. I may still ask the editor, when I get around to it, but I've been having too much fun following the reference route to interrupt for a procedure that is merely practical. Because, when I looked for "mysterical," I ended up right next to the word "mystery" itself, and oh, boy, is that ever interesting!

Remember, while aficionados of mystery fiction may live in a world of their own, the connections between that world and that of the other users of the language remain un-severed. Out in the real world, "mystery" carries a huge load of denotations and connotations.

I started in Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition, which begins the definition of "mystery" with, "Something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret, [the mystery of life]." Immediately it goes to the meaning we care most about here, by continuing, "Any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity, [a murder mystery]" whence "a novel, story, or play involving such an event, esp. a crime and the gradual discovery of who committed it." So far, so good.

It goes on with matters that are related but not the same: "The quality of being inexplicable." "Obscurity or secrecy [an air of mystery surrounding the affair]." "[Pl.] secret rites or doctrines known only to a small esoteric group." There's more. It adds that in Christian theology, the word refers to "a sacrament, especially the Eucharist," and to "any of fifteen events in the life of Jesus and Mary serving as a subject for meditation"... More generally in theology, "any religious truth known to man only through divine revelation and to be accepted on faith." Well, it's nice to know all that, because it's all "mystery," yes. But it does make one wonder out how a word could refer on the one hand to fiction about crime and on the other to the ways of God. Okay, then, I must have skipped over the etymology. Back we go.

Actually, the people who study such matters full time listed "mystery" twice in that dictionary, once with the above meanings (plus several related items that I left out), and again with a radically different meaning, "a craft or trade." At first the second meaning may suggest mystery writing, but 'tisn't so. Let's dump it first. It probably appeared via a confusion of two Latin words, "mysterium" and "ministerium." The first occurs on the way back to the root of "our" usage, and the second en route to the "craft" one. When you go all the way to hypothetical Indo-European roots (nobody speaks the Indo-European language today, and there are no written records, so "hypothetical" is all we can possibly get), "ministerium" goes back to Indo-European mei-, and "mysterium" to "mu-." Mei- meant "small," which is okay for ministers with or without portfolio, but mystery fiction doesn't have anything to do with smallness. Mu-, on the other hand, according to my "American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots," was, "Imitative of inarticulate sounds."

Imitative of inarticulate sounds," indeed! What are we supposed to make of that? "Well, maybe we can see what they have in mind by looking at some of the other descendents of mu-. We have Middle English mum, meaning silent; we have Old French momer, to act (in a play with no words); we have Latin muttire, to mutter; and we have Greek myein (also written muein), which means "to close the eyes." All these (and more--quite a few languages have that common ancestor, and many have given us words) have left traces in modern English, but it's the last one, myein that developed into "mystery." Along the road from there, myein comes to mean "to initiate into the mysteries," the idea being that the initiate is to keep eyes--and mouth--closed. The initiate then becomes a mystes, a word that leads straight to mysterion, a secret rite, which shows up in Latin as mysterium. At this point we're close enough that I don't need to mention Middle English mysterye, and I won't. (I'm also not going to go into the fact that there seem to be two Indo-European roots mu- the second of which refers to a gnat. The linguists say it's something else.)

Those are some of the ancestors of the the word in modern "mystery story"--and some of its siblings. But can we find a concise definition of "mystery" meaning the kind of fiction we use the word for today?

Well, concise, no. The best I've seen, still imperfect, is due to Jim Doherty, who says he's just paraphrasing Michael Seidman. He writes, "A mystery is a piece of fiction about a crime that's worth solving."

That's really very good, except that although it fits what we may call the "classical" mystery very well, all kinds of stuff gets crammed into the "mystery" category and the definition stretches in all directions. For example, we have the so-called "reverse detective story" in which the full details of the crime are revealed to the reader--but often not to the detective--right from the get-go, and the rest of the story is about the process of catching the bad guy (or, at times, of not catching him. Or her). As a kid I read a few "mysteries" in which there were mysterious happenings (i.e. unexplained ones) but the crime part was minimal to non-existent. There's no doubt at all that these were indeed mysteries--you can tell by the titles. One was "Penny Nichols and the Mystery of the Lost Key," which used a minor crime that wouldn't have been worth solving if it hadn't had some further consequences. Of course, the protagonist had to find out what was really happening, so there was at least some "solving." It was mainly an adventure, however, with this puzzling Lost Key aspect.

Back in those days, in fact, the term "murder mystery" was common, referring to mysteries in which the crime was murder. That distinguished them from other mysteries in which it wasn't--or, as in "...Lost Key," in which there's just barely a real crime. It got so nearly all the adult mysteries used murder, because lesser crimes didn't seem to the publishers to shock us enough. Most publishers think it axiomatic that shock is the only thing that sells books, so the "murder mystery" terminology is now thought to be redundant.

I've been told that the British don't have a "mystery" category on their bookstore shelves, but instead refer much more broadly to "crime fiction." When I asked a resident of the UK about this, he replied that yes, "crime fiction" was used a lot, since it saves a lot of sorting out of subgenres, but that some bookstores do use such categories as "mystery," "suspense," "detective stories," etc. Their classifiers, like ours, must include both lumpers and choppers. Some of our choppers seem to want to segregate our mysteries into "cozies," "hard-boiled," "noir," and variations I doubt are worth varying. (Like, "soft-boiled." "Poached" seems not to have come into use, perhaps suggesting plagiarism.) The fact that "mystery" and "detective story" are synonyms to some people but not to others further complicates the attempt to isolate subgenres.

As to what non-English-speaking countries call their mysteries--well, just sitting down with a set of language dictionaries doesn't always answer the question, since dictionaries are often compiled by people who look down their noses at mystery fiction of all sorts. But I can tell you about a few of the terms used here and there about the world.

I sent an e-mail to Jiro Kimura, the man in Japan who runs "The Gumshoe Site," asking him what terms the Japanese use. He kindly replied that Japanese use suiri shosetsu for detection fiction, but just call mystery mystery. That's all I know, but it does seem clear that they maintain some kind of distinction between the two categories.

The Germans use the noun Krimi, which is short for Kriminalroman. The -roman part is the usual European word for a novel, and shows up in the French term polar, short for roman policier. I reckon my readers can figure out for themselves what kriminal and policier mean.

Meantime, the Italians use the term giallo, which, literally, means "yellow." According to professor Umberto Bartocci, the term comes from a particular publishing house, Mondadori, whose mysteries--translations of mysteries from all countries--nearly all appeared in a yellow cover and became the series Il Giallo Mondadori. Since Mondadori was by far the most important mystery publisher in Italy, the term giallo became the standard one.

I was only able to trace a few others, but I'll include them here, since if you were easily bored, you wouldn't have read even this far. So I don't think they'll turn you off.

My Irish dictionary (Foclóir Póca) gives mistéir for mystery, and scéal bléachtaireachta for detective story.

The Finns, according to Hippocrene Concise English-Finnish, use either salaperaisyys or arvoitus for mystery (but I don't know Finnish, so I can't tell you more than that).

In Latvian (according to another Hippocrene), mystery comes out noslepums, and detective novel as detektivromans. Sorry, I can't analyze these either. I have lots more dictionaries, but, sadly, in the others I couldn't find words for the terms we're looking at. Even sadder, it's possible that some of them are from countries where--can you imagine this?--mystery stories are not popular. On that desperate note, I abandon this text, my immediate goal being to look again and see whether I missed any. (I do hate trying to imagine a culture that gets along without mysteries. Seems immoral, to me.)