October 15, 2002

A Column by Byron McAllister


Today let's rush in (angels seem to fear doing so) to a discussion of the general displacement of puzzle mysteries--the "classical" type--by the undeniably more fashionable suspense mysteries. Only an expert can do that authoritatively, but it'd be a shame to let the hints in my Mysterical-e staff bio that I may be a bit opinionated go to waste. So here are some of my opinions of the moment. Some readers may say of them, "That's what you think--but it's wrong." Okay, I may indeed by wrong. But then, I may not.

Let me admit, right off, that I like the puzzles better, and that I may be a little unfair to the suspense crowd. I'm not sure how suspense stories began to be classified as mysteries in the first place. Maybe they really came first? Anyway, the only mysterious thing about them is the adrenalin-filled question, "What will happen next?" That's not exactly how it was in the so-called "classical" days of the mystery, back when writers went to the trouble of carefully developing a puzzling situation, and that before the detective's life was threatened--if it ever was. Time passed and, probably because the genre sold well, some suspense stories came to be listed as "mystery." They would formerly have been called "adventure," but that category seems to be obsolete. One would have expected the fad to prove temporary. But it didn't. From that point on, classic "puzzle" mysteries had an increasingly difficult time interesting acquisitions editors.

Why? My fictional self managed to intercept the following thought process from a publisher contemplating a puzzle mystery: "In this book, even though you can't tell whodunit right away, it doesn't meet Alfred Hitchcock's definition of suspense. Though it may provide endorphins enough to make it appeal to adults, it won't provide a walloping kick of adrenalin, and we've has gone to a great deal of trouble to make sure the nation's kids are hooked on the latter, much better-understood chemical."

As an aside, I've noticed that today's acquisitions editors are mostly young enough that they are, themselves, still hooked on adrenalin. In other words, it may not be solely pressure from above that makes them think that way.

But suppose an editor succeeds in conquering the addiction within her- or himself. He or she still has to reckon with the fact that the denizens of the firm's marketing department know that the attempt to dumb down the populace (so we can be maneuvered into loving television, with its money-making advertising advantages) is succeeding very well. This means they would have to work hard to come up with slogans and graphic art appropriate to the sale of any exhibition of intellect, which, therefore, is relatively unwelcome in any fiction, including mysteries. For, puzzle mysteries do exhibit intellect. The public has been conditioned--well, I guess it's actually possible that "we" conditioned ourselves--to prefer intense emotion to careful thought. Thrill is an intense emotion, and suspense furnishes thrills, and that's the basic story, and the tycoons who have bought up the publishing houses know it.

Hey, but there are a lot of mystery-lovers out here, and we aren't all alike. Some of us still like puzzle mysteries. You remember--the kind where, sometimes, strong mental effort permits the reader to beat the detective to the knowledge of how and by whom the crime was accomplished. Also the kind where the reader, despite the aforementioned strong mental effort, does not see how the crime was accomplished, but--after the denouement--says, "All the clues were there! I should have been able to see that!"

Okay, though, a lot of people don't care for the kind of intense brainwork needed to "solve" a puzzle mystery, preferring stories where the plot advances from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, each more frightening than the one before. Meantime, the supply of "new blood," i.e. of sharp young potential mystery readers, is even further depleted by the fact that many of the brightest go into technical subjects. Often that shifts their reading preferences into science fiction. (That's likely to mean suspense in sci-fi form, but that's another question, and I'll let somebody else play with it.)

Before we go, what about the fact that the companies that traditionally publish genre fiction have fallen into the hands of people who are, basically, only manipulators of investments, with no real interest in what they publish beyond the question of whether it will immediately pay off big? They see this as best accomplished by always catering to what they view as the "plurality clientele," i.e. people who prefer books unmistakably in the suspense subgenre. It's as if shoe manufacturing had been taken over by financiers whose superficial research indicated that more women wear a size 8 shoe than any other size, and therefore ordered their production lines to accept only designs for women's size 8 shoes. One company's doing that might result in their capturing most of the women's size 8 market, but then the other companies, seeing a drop in sales of their most popular models, would follow suit. Men would have to join women who wear something other than 8's in being forced to self-cobble. (Or to become prey to vanity cobblers. A long time ago, before mass-production, that was standard practice, but it isn't any more. Same in publishing.)

Oh, yes, one more thing. I recently noticed an author's complaint on an electronic bulletin board about a bookstore that shelved the complainer's whodunnit under "suspense." I guess in that bookstore, they subdivide "mystery" like that. Anyway, here's my theory: it was meant as a friendly promotion. Somebody at that bookstore likes the book and wanted to stimulate sales, so he or she moved it from alongside the reprinted Agatha Christies-- an area frequented mainly by us neglected puzzlers--to a position in "suspense," where a plurality of the general public is more likely to notice it. Gee whiz! Suspense got where it is by being misclassified as mystery, so it seems fair to me to let puzzlers try to make a comeback by misclassifying them as suspense. In fact, hey! If we're sneaky enough, maybe classical mysteries could quietly retake possession of the whole genre.