What Makes A Good Mystery Story Essay

In 1944 the literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote an exasperated essay in the pages of The New Yorker titled “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” Wilson, who at the time was about to go abroad to cover the Allied bombing campaign on Germany, felt that he’d outgrown the detective genre by the age of twelve, by which time he’d read through the stories of the early masters, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet everyone he knew seemed to be addicted. His wife at the time, Mary McCarthy, was in the habit of recommending her favorite detective novels to their émigré pal Vladimir Nabokov; she lent him H. F. Heard’s beekeeper whodunit “A Taste for Honey,” which the Russian author enjoyed while recovering from dental surgery. (After reading Wilson’s essay, Nabokov advised his friend not to dismiss the genre tout court until he’d tried some Dorothy L. Sayers.) Surrounded on all sides by detection connoisseurs, Wilson sounded genuinely perplexed when he wondered, “What, then, is the spell of the detective story that has been felt by T. S. Eliot and Paul Elmer More but which I seem to be unable to feel?”

That T. S. Eliot, of all people, was a devoted fan of the genre must have rankled Wilson in particular. Eliot, the author of famously difficult and formidably learned poems, whose every critical pronouncement was seized upon by dons and converted into doctrine, was an unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment. Wilson, indeed, had played a part in establishing Eliot’s reputation as such, having gushed, in his era-defining study “Axel’s Castle” (1931), that the poet-critic had an “infinitely sensitive apparatus for aesthetic appreciation”—a sensitivity presumably not worth squandering on something as puerile and formulaic as mysteries.

But, as scholars like David Chinitz have pointed out, Eliot’s attitude toward popular art forms was more capacious and ambivalent than he’s often given credit for. His most formally ambitious poetry retained something of the jumpy syncopations of the ragtime he’d heard growing up in St. Louis; in his later years he wanted nothing more than to have a hit on Broadway. And it so happens that, well before detective stories came into vogue among Wilson’s cohort, Eliot had become one of the genre’s most passionate and discerning readers. Among the many treasures to be found in the third volume of “The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot,” which is now out from Johns Hopkins University Press, are a number of reviews of detective novels which Eliot published, with no byline, in his literary journal The Criterion, in 1927. In them, we see not only Eliot’s passion for detective fiction but his attempts to codify the genre in the midst of some of its most momentous evolutions.

Eliot was composing his reviews in the early years of detective fiction’s Golden Age, when authors like Sayers, Agatha Christie, and John Dickson Carr were churning out genteel whodunits featuring motley arrays of suspects and outlandish murder methods. More even than the stories of Poe or Doyle, the early work that to Eliot served as a model for the genre was “The Moonstone,” by Wilkie Collins, a sprawling melodrama about the theft and recovery of an Indian diamond, which appeared in serial installments in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round magazine in 1868. In his introduction to the 1928 Oxford World Classics edition of the novel, Eliot called it “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels.” (This blurb still adorns Oxford paperback editions.) The story is full of protracted plot twists and portentous cliffhangers, many of them not of particular relevance to the mystery at hand; we are told as much about the reading habits of the house-steward, a fan of “Robinson Crusoe,” and the fraught romance between the handsome Franklin Blake and the impetuous Rachel Verinder, as we are about the circumstances surrounding the heist. For Eliot, such digressions helped lend the mystery an “intangible human element.” In a review written in the January, 1927, issue of The Criterion, he claimed that all good detective fiction “tends to return and approximate to the practice of Wilkie Collins.”

A key tenet of Golden Age detection was “fair play”—the idea that an attentive reader must in theory have as good a shot at solving the mystery as the story’s detective. To establish parameters of fairness, Eliot suggests that “the character and motives of the criminal should be normal” and that “elaborate and incredible disguises” should be banned; he writes that a good detective story must not “rely either upon occult phenomena or … discoveries made by lonely scientists,” and that “elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance.” The latter rule would seem to exclude masterpieces like Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which involves a murder carried out by a snake trained to shimmy through a heating duct, then down a bell rope whose tassel extends to the victim’s pillow. But Eliot admitted that most great works broke at least one of his rules. He in fact adored Arthur Conan Doyle, and was given to quoting long passages from the Holmes tales verbatim at parties, and to borrowing bits and ideas for his poems. (He confessed in a letter to John Hayward that the line “On the edge of a grimpen,” from “Four Quartets,” alludes to the desolate Grimpen Mire in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”)

In the June, 1927, issue of The Criterion, Eliot continued to articulate his standards, reviewing another sixteen novels and drawing fine distinctions between mysteries, chronicles of true crimes, and detective stories proper. His favorite of the bunch was “The Benson Murder Case,” by S. S. Van Dine. One of the few American writers to factor into Eliot’s analyses of detective fiction, Van Dine was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright, an art critic, freelance journalist, and sometime editor of The Smart Set, who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, spent two years in bed reading more than two thousand detective stories, during which time he methodically distilled the genre’s formulas and began writing novels. His detective, Philo Vance, was a leisurely aesthete prone to mini-lectures on Tanagra figurines, who approached detective work, as Eliot put it admiringly, “using methods similar to those which Mr. Bernard Berenson applies to paintings.”

In 1928, Van Dine would publish his own “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” in The American Magazine; that same year, Ronald A. Knox—a Catholic priest and member of the mystery-writer’s group London Detection Club, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G. K. Chesterton—would put forth his Ten Commandments of detective fiction. It is hard to know if these authors would have been aware of Eliot’s own rules, published the year before, but many of their principles echo Eliot’s parameters of fair play: Van Dine wrote that “no willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader”; the Detection Club’s Oath, which was based on Knox’s commandments, required its members to promise that their stories would avoid making use of “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or the Act of God.” (Christie had tested the limits of fairness with the twist-ending of her 1926 novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” causing a stir among devotees of the genre; in 1945 Edmund Wilson, having been deluged with angry mail after his first piece was published, wrote a follow-up titled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” in which he deemed his experience reading a second batch of mystery novels “even more disillusioning than my expe­rience with the first.”)

But in comparing Eliot’s reviews with the rules of these detective-fiction insiders, we can see just how idiosyncratic Eliot’s judgments could be. Where Van Dine specifies that “a detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked out character analyses”—exactly the qualities Eliot so admired in “The Moonstone”—Eliot, ever the literary historian, saw the genre as stemming from a deeper tradition of melodrama, which for him included everything from Jacobean revenge tragedies to “Bleak House.” “Those who have lived before such terms as ‘high-brow fiction,’ ‘thrillers’ and ‘detective fiction’ were invented,” Eliot wrote in an essay on Wilkie Collins and Dickens, “realize that melodrama is perennial and that the craving for it is perennial.” Good detective fiction tempered the passion and pursuit of melodrama with the “beauty of a mathematical problem”; an unsuccessful story, Eliot wrote, was one that “fails between two possible tasks … the pure intellectual pleasure of Poe and the fullness and abundance of life of Collins.” What he appreciated, in other words, was the genre’s capacity for conveying intensity of sentiment and human experience within taut formal designs—a quality that might just as soon apply to literary fiction or poetry.

It is disappointing, then, that Eliot’s reviews included no opinions on the new kind of literary detective novel that was taking shape across the ocean. At precisely the moment when Eliot was laying down his rules in The Criterion, Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective and an enthusiastic reader of “The Waste Land,” was in the process of serializing his tale of a jewel-encrusted statuette in the pages of Black Mask. Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” marked a shift in detective fiction, away from decorous country-house puzzles into a meaner, starker, bleaker kind of urban crime thriller, in which the mechanics of the crime were often less essential than the atmosphere through which the characters moved. With the advent of this “hardboiled” style, the British murder mysteries began to seem quaint and artificial. (In his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler would deem Van Dine’s Philo Vance “probably the most asinine character in detective fiction.”) One wonders what Eliot, who built his great poem around the Grail legend, would have made of “The Maltese Falcon,” with its cosmopolite eccentrics chasing after a shadowy MacGuffin with a history going back to the Knights Templar. And one wonders what, with his more-British-than-the-British expat sensibilities, he would have made of this bold new American literature.

It’s possible, though, that Eliot’s affinity for Golden Age detective stories had only partially to do with the genre’s literary merits. During the year he wrote his mystery reviews, Eliot was undergoing a sharp turn to the right politically, and was steeped in dense works of theology in preparation for his baptism into the Anglo-Catholic church. (In a June, 1927, letter to his friend Virginia Woolf he described himself, only half-jokingly, as a “person who specializes in detective stories and ecclesiastical history.”) His conversion to a man of royalist proclivities and religious faith, after which he attended Mass every morning before heading off to work in Russell Square, was at least in part a matter of giving order to a world he saw as intolerably messy. At the end of his 1944 essay, Edmund Wilson suggested that it was no accident that the Golden Age of detection coincided with the period between the two World Wars: in a shattered civilization, there was something reassuring about the detective’s ability to link up all the broken fragments and “know just where to fix the guilt.” Such tidy solutions were to Wilson the mark of glib and simplistic genre fiction. But to Eliot, who in “The Waste Land” wrote of the fractured modern world as a “heap of broken images,” it seems possible that Golden Age detective stories offered above all a pleasing orderliness—a way of seeing ghastly disruptions restored to equilibrium with the soothing predictability of ritual.

Do you enjoy a good whodunit? So do I. It’s my pleasure to share with you some fun, quirky, story ideas for writing mysteries.

(This is the fourth in my series of story ideas, by the way.  If you’re interested in the others, check out 20 fantasy story ideas, 20 sci-fi story ideas, and 20 romance story ideas.)

20 Crime Solving Story Ideas

  1. Charles McDougall, Scotland Yard’s best Inspector, is laid up in the hospital with a badly broken leg, but that doesn’t mean he’s off the clock! An online news headline describing a tragic gas leak/explosion catches his eye. Four people died: a housewife, a minor politician, a young chemist, and the daughter of a local mobster. Somehow, using only clues from the internet (and what he can worm out of his coworkers), he has to figure out which of those people was the actual target, and why.
  2. Agatha Christoph (get it?) is a retired schoolteacher in a beautiful little town in New England. She never married and has no children, so her friends are everything to her. That’s why when her best friend, Martha, is blackmailed with vague threats about some risqué photos from Martha’s youth, Agatha jumps to the rescue. But Martha’s youth was a LONG time ago. Who could have those photos? And what could they possibly want?
  3. Mars is colonized, though there’s no air outside the domes. Travel from dome to dome is by train. The Eberswalde Express is the “luxury” locomotive, filled with old-timey elegance and charm. It takes a day and a half between stops to give wealthy patrons full time to enjoy the amenities. AND WOULDN’T YOU KNOW IT…THERE’S A MURDER! Weirdly, this murder mimics the plotline of The Orient Express, and Elsa, a librarian and mystery buff, recognizes the details. With a murderer on board and nowhere to go, everyone is in danger. Can Elsa solve this murder before the killer strikes again?
  4. Ever heard the phrase, “It is not who fired the shot but who paid for the bullet”? This is a philosophy Tomoe Gozen lives by. Tomoe (who, by the way, was a real female Samurai) serves her general well, but when a fellow soldier dies mysteriously one night after a game of Chō-Han, she can’t simply accept that the death had no meaning. Brave and clever, Tomoe follows clues until she learns who ordered the murder: Emperor Antoku himself. But why would the emperor of Japan want to kill a lowly soldier? And why the subterfuge?
  5. Medieval France. Fourteen-year-old Amée is a servant girl with a genius IQ stuck as a scullery maid in her fief lord’s castle. She leads a lonely life, with plenty of time to think and analyze, though—and this is important—she can’t read. But something strange is happening here. The fief lord keeps bringing new brides home… and within two weeks, those brides disappear. A new one—nearly Amée’s age—has just been brought to the castle, and Amée knows the clock for survival has already begun to tick. She has time to figure this out. Will she before it’s too late?
  6. Omar Yehia is a colonel in Cairo’s police department. The government is unstable, and the people are unhappy; he has his hands full with violent cases all the time. Unfortunately, one day, a slain prostitute turns out to have something on her person that no one in Egypt should have at all: Queen Mary’s Crown. How on earth did she get that? More importantly, what will Omar do with the 48 hours his superiors give him to crack this case before they report this to foreign authorities?
  7. Sandra is a mystery-lover. She sees mysteries and hidden conspiracies everywhere they aren’t, and her sister Carrie laughs this off as a silly quirk… until Carrie is framed for the murder of the man in the next apartment. Carrie’s DNA is somehow all over the place, though she swears she’s never even been in that apartment before. No one thinks Carrie is innocent but Sandra… and she has a limited amount of time to prove her sister is innocent.
  8. Twelve-year-old Alexandra is a leader. She runs her school’s newspaper, manages three after-school clubs (the book club, the fencing club, and the junior stamp-collector club), and doesn’t have time for nonsense. Which is why when she sees a man dressed all in black carrying a manilla folder as he climbs out of her principal’s window, her determination to get to the bottom of it knows no bounds. Look out, data-thief. Here comes Alexandra!
  9. David is a senior software engineer for a major tech company, and he spends most days knee-deep in other people’s databases, trying to figure out what they did wrong.  One day, he happens across a piece of malicious code designed to steal financial information. He reports it and deletes it, but he comes across that same code again—in the database of a completely different company. He finds it again; and again. And the fifth time around, his manager drops a hint that the higher-ups think he’s the best person to figure out who’s planting it. Undercover, they send him to each of the company’s data centers: one in London, one in Boston, one in Dallas, and one in Seattle. It’s going to be his job—socially anxious as he is—to interview everyone and find out who’s planting that code and why.
  10. General March hires Detective Thomas to try to find the person who’s been blackmailing March for the past twenty years. Thomas tracks the miscreant down, but finds that the man behind the threats has been dead for the past ten years. So who’s carrying on the blackmailing? And is the secret that’s held March prisoner this long something that should stay a secret?

10 More Mystery Story Ideas

  1. Defense attorney Bob Larson enjoys his job. He likes justice; he likes being right. Usually, he thinks right and wrong are really easy to spot. Then he ends up representing a young Navy Seal who shot and killed an elderly woman—and claims it was in self-defense. Who’s really the bad guy?
  2. Samuel sleepwalks. He also thinks he loves another man’s wife. He’s more surprised than anyone when he’s arrested for that man’s murder. Did he do it? Or is he being set up to take the fall?
  3. Mystery writer Dan Rodriguez takes the subway every day. Every day, nothing happens. He wears earbuds and a hoodie; he’s ignored, and he ignores. Then one evening, on his way home from a stressful meeting with his publisher, Dan is startled out of his funk when a frantic Middle-Eastern man knocks him over at a dead run, then races up the stairs—pursued by several other mysterious looking thugs. The Middle-Eastern man is shot; and Dan discovers a small, wrapped package in the front pocket of his hoodie. What’s inside, and what does he need to do to survive the answer?
  4. Wealthy, unmarried Anne Lamont is murdered, and she leaves her entire fortune to a man she met two weeks before, putting suspicion squarely on him. Detective Arnold thinks the man is innocent. He has a week to make his case before this goes before a jury. But when he digs into Anne’s background, he finds the sweet old matron wasn’t at all what she seemed.
  5. A headless corpse is found in a freshly-dug grave in Arkansas. The local police chief, Arley Socket, has never had to deal with more than missing gas cans and treed cats. His exploration of this weird murder digs up a mystery older than the 100-year-old town of Jericho that harkens all the way back to a European blood-feud.
  6. Someone is murdering homeless people in Phoenix, Arizona. Detective Sally Fortnight is determined to get to the bottom of it… but what she uncovers may be more deadly than she could ever guess.
  7. On the Lovely Lady riverboat in 1900’s Louisiana, professional gambler Lacroix is just doing his thing when a scream startles him and the other players from the  poker table. It turns out the captain of the steamboat has been murdered, and only someone on the boat could’ve pulled it off. Lacroix already has a record. In two days, the Lady will pull into Shreveport, where he stands a good chance of being arrested… unless he can suss out the killer first.
  8. Detective Donna Madison is on a completely routine case (bootleg watches, just so you know) when she stumbles across a ring of jewel thieves. Two murders, a clever fortune-teller, and a stuffed cat filled with clues later, and Donna finds herself uncovering a far bigger mystery than where stolen watches go.
  9. It is the Cold War era. Private Eye Charles Nick searches for a missing cryptanalyst, all the while dodging an obsessed FBI agent who thinks Nick is a communist spy. The cryptanalyst, by the way, went missing for a good reason: he might have cracked the latest Russian spy code, and he’s running for his life.
  10. 1850’s England: elderly Doris and her six young wards are caught in a storm and forced to ask for shelter at an enormous manor deep in the English countryside. But all is not well in this home, and before long, Doris faces a bizarre problem: the manor’s lord, Sir Geoffrey, claims his estranged wife Alice is going to murder him that evening. Alice, meanwhile, claims that Geoffrey is going to murder her. After dinner, both are found dead, in the library, seated as if having a rational discussion, but dead as mice. There is no obvious murder weapon, and quite possibly, the murderer is loose in the manor. Doris is no detective, but she might as well figure this out. Given that storm, help won’t be coming until it’s too late.

Do any of these story ideas get your inner-criminal devising? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

It’s time to play with story ideas! Take fifteen minutes and develop one of these story ideas into at least one scene. Don’t edit yourself! Set your imagination free, then post your results in the comments. Don’t forget to leave feedback for other writers!

Ruthanne Reid

Frothy, according to Kirkus Reviews. Thrives on regular servings of good books and cute cats.

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