Saturday, April 5, 2014

Tell Me How It Ends

Last month I talked about how I didn’t like short stories when I started writing, but learned to appreciate and eventually love the form. Mysteries are my reading equivalent of that. I used to hate reading and watching mystery stories because I could usually spot the villain early on. I spent so much time and effort looking and finding my killer in the first half of the story that I couldn’t actually enjoy the end. But, as I got older, I gained some patience and learned to appreciate the journey and not get distracted by the destination.

Like most genres, mysteries are full of tropes and patterns, sure. And, if you dwell too long on them, it sucks the fun out of everything. Because, it’s true what they say, there are no truly original ideas. Every story told is a version of one that came before it. Even the first story ever told was based on something. So, yeah, searching for true novelty in novels tends to leave a bitter sense of disappointment in its wake. Form is important—it’s what makes one genre different from another and often what makes a good story different than an average one. But, if you get too wrapped up in whether a story follows or deviates from form, you too often lose sight of the story itself. Sometimes, you need to let go a little and just let the story take you; allow the ride to take you where it’s going on its terms instead of guessing what may or may not be coming six chapters later. 

Take Kyra Davis’s Sophie Katz series, they’re a little ridiculous and definitely unrealistic, but they’re sassy and exciting and tend to take you to strange places, from sex trade shows to furry conventions, from haunted houses to mafia mansions. Her stories twist and wind through clues, navigated by a kickass protagonist who manages to be both intelligent and flawed, charming and a bit of a smartass. These novels are snarky and funny to balance out the bloody murder, violent mayhem, and eyebrow-raising scandal that tie the plots together. Studied too closely, sure, the stories fall apart—one could easily nitpick the legalities and realities of these novels to pieces. But, when taken and enjoyed for what they are, they’re an entirely entertaining mini-escape.

But, no matter how ridiculous Sophie’s stories seem, they never quite reach the brilliant absurdism of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crimes novels. Set in a world where every character from your childhood—from Mother Goose to Grimm, from Aesop to Ancient Greek—live together, this series tells the case stories of Detective Jack Spratt. You follow him through this whodunit world that seems both deeply familiar and completely unique as he tries to discover who murdered Humpty Dumpty or to go on a manhunt for the Gingerbread Man. It plays on the knowledge that you, as the reader, know what’s going to happen—you’ve read the stories and know the rhymes—and turns them on their heads. 

Another popular mystery figure who’s been revived over and over again to unending delight of fans is none other than the famous Sherlock Holmes. To be quite honest, I never got into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing; his style never quite clicking with my oh-so modern tastes. But, the recent incarnations of him—from House to Bones, from Robert Downey Jr. to Benedict Cumberbatch—I am in love with all of them. I am Sher-Locked. There’s something about a hyper-intelligent person with that kind of driven passion that clutches the nerd-girl in me by the heart strings. No matter what the version, these modern takes on this legendary detective absolutely capture me. You just can’t help but marvel as you Watson along the trail of the crime, feeling a tiny touch closer to greatness. He is proof that various styles and forms may come in and out of favor, but brains are always in fashion.

I’m not going to lie to you; I’ve turned into the type of reader who reads the last few pages of a novel, just to be sure I know where I’m going. I absolutely spoil myself so I don’t spend the entire time guessing instead of just enjoying the story. Because, like sex and love and life itself, if you’re spending too much time in your own head, thinking too hard about that climax, chances are good it’ll only disappoint. Because you’ve rushed from beginning to end without taking the time to enjoy the middle. Of all the genres I read, of all the story types I consume, mystery teaches me time and again that how I get to that end—the savored anticipation and carefully built pleasure of the tale—is always far more important than where I actually end up.

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