Mystery’s 90/10 rule

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

If there’s one trope of the mystery that stands out among all other types of stories—perhaps the single element that defines the mystery—it’s the solution being announced at the conclusion.

Almost all story leads the reader to a suspenseful ending. The mystery is unique in that the main character is responsible for explaining the prior events back to the reader in such a way as to make sense of them all. There are plenty of poorly-written books that open with a great dump of exposition to get the reader up to speed. Mystery has pretty much cornered the market on stories ending with an exposition dump.

This leads to mystery readers’ inevitable slaying of a story: “I knew who did it before I reached the end.” Usually this is put at some great insult or shut-down of the writer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most mystery writers don’t cringe when a reader claims to have solved the whodunnnit before the last page. Why?

Magician Eric Mead describes a bit of inside baseball for his craft:

…if a magician shows somebody a trick and ninety percent of that trick fools them but there is a little ten percent sliver over here that does not fool them, the average person will say that the trick did not fool them even though they can’t explain ninety percent of it.

…if that same magician shows that same trick to his fellow conjurers, it only takes that ten percent sliver for them to admit that they were fooled.

The same could be said for mystery writers and their craft. The problem of penning a mystery novel isn’t managing to befuddle the reader to the point of utter despair before they reach the last page. If you want to experience such confusion, try Gertude Stein’s Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, a novella one reviewer notes “since it’s more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor…then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.”

For almost every other mystery book written, fooling the reader is kind of a side quest for the novelist. Even in an Agatha Christie book where six shady suspects roam the English country house, the reader has a better than fifteen percent chance of simply guessing the murder by yanking a name from a hat. And when a reader claims to have deduced the murderer before the final chapter, I would ask in return, can you fully explain the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s of the crime? Or are you merely working on a hunch, one that may have to do with meta-analysis of the book? (“The writer keeps making this character seem innocent. I bet they’re the one.”) Or did you suspect the character at one point in the story, fleetingly, before moving on to other suspicions, and later told yourself you’d figured it out? Be honest here.

This is Eric Mead’s 90%, the part of the mystery other novelists don’t fret over when reading someone else’s work.

The 10% most readers overlook but keeps other novelists up at nights? Writing a novel that readers will pick up in the first place; writing a novel that will carry readers to the last page; filling pages with knockdown dialogue, tight scenes, and wonderful prose; and the perennial dream, writing a novel people are still talking about fifty years later. This is the sliver novelists concern themselves with when admiring (or critiquing) another mystery writer’s work. This 10% does require storytelling sleight of hand, and when it’s working it’s all-but-invisible to the reader.

The New American Regionalism

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

An untested opinion I’ve held for many years:

Modern mystery fiction has supplanted 19th-century American regional literature, sometimes known as “writing of local color,” as its dominant form.

Regionalism is most strongly associated with Southern writers like Kate Chopin and Joel Chandler Harris, but after the American Civil War local color writing sprung up all over the country. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”) cataloged New England’s parochialism while Bret Harte wrote roaring tales of California’s Gold Rush. Scholars make distinctions between the terms “regional literature” and “writing of local color,” but I’ll use them interchangeably here.

Regionalism in American writing faded after the turn of the century to be replaced by a more consensus-based literature. Perhaps the twin rise of mass literacy and mass media contributed to regionalism’s fade, although it did not go extinct. Faulkner and Jean Toomer wrote well into the 20th century, and wrote using techniques that would have been foreign to the earlier regional writers, but their fiction is unmistakably grounded in regionalism.

But did regionalism truly fade away? Or was it replaced by something else?

It seems to me that mystery fiction quietly—almost subversively—filled in regionalism’s absence. Every major city in America is host to at least one major crime or detective writer, from Seattle (Aaron Elkins, G. M. Ford) to Boston (Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane) to Chicago (Sara Paretsky) to New Orleans (James Lee Burke), all representing their respective locales through their work. Name almost any place in America today and you’ll find crime writers prowling its dark corners. In the process, they’re introducing the region’s colors and textures to a national audience.

More than any other form of fiction today, mystery is concerned with setting. Science fiction has almost no restrictions when it comes to setting. Fantasy explicitly takes place elsewhere than the here and now, otherwise it’s not fantasy. Romance fiction has setting too, but its concerns are before the fireplace and in the bedroom.

Even contemporary American literature—”fiction of literary intent,” so-called hard realism—is not as connected to setting as mystery fiction. Too often stories from the small literary magazines feel as though they could take place in any city or suburb or small farm, whichever backdrop suits the characters and the emotional arcs they traverse.

Perhaps the only other form of American fiction so tied to setting is the Western, a genre that not coincidentally shares a great deal in common with the American mystery, especially the private eye genre.

I’m not saying other forms of fiction don’t possess a setting, or that they don’t concern themselves with setting. I’m saying that, for the form as a whole, mystery adopts a priority for regions—regionalism—other forms do not.

In mystery, scenes unfold on streets with grounded names and in bars with a history. A great mystery reads like a travelogue of a town, a neighborhood, or a county. The American mystery has a tradition of hewing to real-world settings, such as the streets of Nob Hill in Hammett’s stories and novels. Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” police procedurals make take place in a fictional New York City borough, but it’s the Big Apple all the same. Sue Grafton’s stand-in for Santa Barbara (“Santa Teresa”) is so Southern California, you can imagine The Eagles cutting a single about it.

This, I say, is the New American Regionalism. Mystery writers delight in bringing alive their surroundings, and by doing so they share their surroundings with their readership. Local color means local characters and local charm. Look at what stylist Elmore Leonard does so expertly in his Florida novels, capturing the multifaceted dialects and cultures of Miami. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry of local color concentrates on “the features and peculiarities of a particular locality and its inhabitants.” This fits Florida crime writing to a T, with an emphasis on the peculiarities and particulars of the genre’s always-colorful cast of characters (Leonard, Carl Hiassen, Edna Buchanan).

My first inkling of the connection between regional writing and mysteries came to me twenty-five years ago living in San Luis Obispo, California. An ever-reliable bookstore there stocked a case of local writers, including several mystery series. Perusing the back cover blurbs, it was apparent the writers had mined the peculiarities and particulars of San Luis Obispo County for all it had to offer. My cynical younger self found it ludicrous, these over-boiled private eyes and steely Lt. Detectives walking the mean streets of San Luis Obispo, a place ranked “one of the happiest cities on Earth.”

Over the years I’ve lightened up. I came to realize the mystery writers of SLO Town were merely doing what all regional writers have done in America: Explore, critique, and celebrate they places they live.