Guest Blog

Guest Blog

Mysteries and the Myth of Justice

According to the Vancouver Sun, in a decade, greater Vancouver has had 290 unsolved murders — about one in every four. Reading that statistic, I realized the main reason why mysteries are so popular: they’re our myth of a world where justice is always done.

We definitely don’t read them primarily for the puzzle, although we might admire a plot that keeps us guessing and misdirects us. But with the number of mysteries published every month, by now the plots of mysteries could have become hopelessly convoluted if people read them only in the hopes of out-thinking the writer. Instead of being one of the most popular genres, they would be an esoteric game, like the bridge puzzles published daily beside the comics.

Nor, today, are they the only way to publish a historical novel, the way they were a couple of decades ago. I admit myself to an addiction to mysteries set in Classical Rome, but, these days, I have little trouble finding mainstream novels with similar settings (although never enough of them).

I admit, too, that I sometimes choose a novel according to a character’s voice or profession. I’ll read about Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Antonia Fraser’s Jemima Shore for no better reason than they sound like people I’d like to meet.

Still, plot, setting, or character do not explain what makes mysteries unique. After all, these things are the mainstay of all fiction.

Instead, mysteries appeal to us on the level of myths — by which I mean, not lies, but the stories that contain the truths and worldviews that make up the world as we would like it to be.

Returning to the myths.

As children, we are encouraged to believe that justice is always done, and the guilty are always discovered and punished. If we have the ease of middle-class life and happen to avoid personal trauma, we can continue to believe these myths uncritically well into adulthood.

However, sooner or later, we realize that life falls short of these myths. Through experience, we learn that the legal system is as much about clearing cases from the court dockets as about justice. We find that the police are as likely to be bullies or corrupt as paladins upholding our ideals, and consciously we distance ourselves from the myths we were taught.

Yet part of us still wants those myths to be true. At the simplest, level, we want a mystery to end with crimes being punished and paid for. But, because we realize the world is more complicated, the playing out of this myth is not always enough for us to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the novel.

As a result, writers enlist other elements to help us in our brief belief. The details of a police procedural helps us to pretend that we are reading about the way things are (and never mind the statistics about unsolved crimes). The rogue detective who fights the callousness of bureaucracy suggests that the system may sometimes work, if someone will only take a stand. Similarly, the amateur detective who seeks the truth that the police and the courts ignore reassures us that, while officialdom may be careless about the truth, someone else may take up the slack. We may not even mind if the amateur takes justice into their own hands, so long as justice is satisfied somehow.

Some writers, of course, will play with these expectations, and leave a crime unsolved or partially concealed. For example, Jo Walton’s Farthing is set in an alternate world in which England signed an armistice with Hitler in 1941, and eight years later, at the time of the story, is rapidly sliding into Fascism itself. One of the signs of this slide is that the murder in the novel is blamed on an innocent man — and the authorities not only suppress the truth, but get away with the suppression through blackmail.

The conclusion is devastating, because it deliberately goes against what we expect in a mystery. Throughout the sequels, Ha’Penny and Half a Crown, we find our expectations of justice thwarted again and again. By the end of the third book, even the possibility of justice comes as a relief.

A mystery can make a direct appeal to our myth of justice, or play with our expectations by denying it. But, either way, to work it depends on the myth being a part of our mental furniture. Without this appeal, the eccentric detective, the shoot-out on the street — all the usual stock-in-trade of a mystery — are meaningless clichés. Conversely, they come alive to the extent that they awaken our hopes for a just and meaningful world.

Bruce Byfield 604-421-7189 (on Pacific time)