The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story

The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story

Paget_Holmes_04The critic Tzvetan Todorov once suggested that the trick to writing a successful detective story was being sure not to innovate. The great genre work is that which best and most closely follows the “rules” of its genre; to refine the genre, he cautioned, would be “to write ‘literature’” rather than a mystery. But surely this is wrong-headed; a nonsense—logically, let alone critically—to separate Literature and detective fiction, as if they constitute mutually exclusive genres. For there is no “the” in “the mystery story.” Use of the definite article here is a cheap yet time-honoured trick: a red herring. “The” mystery story is as rich a tradition—or, rather, set of entwined traditions—as any other in the literary network. To paraphrase and doctor the Law, or Revelation, of the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: if much mystery and crime writing is “crud,” then this is only because ninety percent of everything is; what matters is mystery writing’s other ten percent, and its enduring appeal. It matters, amongst other reasons, because such consideration as we can afford this ten percent may help us to keep broad and alive our sense of what counts as “literature” and “the literary.” To do this at a time when the political model being handed down to educators offers an ever narrower conception of art and culture—well, perhaps it would be a modest achievement, but not an unimportant one.

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Oli Belas is a teacher, writer, and independent academic. He lives in Walthamstow (north-east London) with his ever-supportive and endlessly patient wife, Sarah. He has written about popular science, detective, and African American fiction, and literary theory/philosophy. When time and geography allow, Oli works with his friend, artist Rene Daigle. Their first joint effort is the illustrated essay "The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story" (published in Litro Magazine), and they have plans for some illustrated, noir-ish fiction.

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