Recently, I overheard two women in the mystery section in a bookstore:
“Oh my gawd, I can’t believe it, they have this in the mysteries! It has spells and magic and everything!!!”
“Oh gawd, that’s so stupid!!!”
I moved away before my inner librarian erupted to explain to the shocked duo that the books had to go somewhere, right? And you found them, right? So shut up. (My inner librarian is helpful that way.)
But in truth, this got me to thinking about the nature of mysteries. Let me give an example. I recently finished reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, which was a very different sort of mystery. It takes place in an unnamed city in an unspecified time.
There’s a noirish, forties feel to the setting: all the men wear hats, office clerks use typewriters, and there’s no reference to any sort of modern technology. But it also has a weird Alice in Wonderland quality, where outlandish things happen and people behave in bizarre ways, and all of it is treated as, well, maybe not normal exactly, but to be taken in stride.
It eventually becomes clear you’re in a dream world where almost anything is possible. A man is nearly suffocated by his own hat. A criminal mastermind excises a whole day from the calendar. And in one of my favorite scenes, a host of sleepwalkers converges on a club called the Cat and Tonic (get it?) where they drink milk cocktails and gamble with alarm clocks.
The oddness of this book, coupled with the previously mentioned conversation, made me consider if there are boundaries to the mystery story. Is there a tacit requirement that a mystery has to exist in the world as we know it, either the past or the present, or in a future that’s in close proximity to our reality like the J.D. Robb Eve Dallas novels? How much magic/weirdness/otherworldliness is necessary before it slips over into fantasy?
Exhibit A: Jasper Fforde, the Thursday Next series.
When The Eyre Affair, the first novel in this series came out, I would swear on a stack of Doyles that it was shelved as a mystery by the big book chains. It features one of the weirdest realities I’ve seen in a mystery, taking place in an alternate past, with time travel, cloned dodos, and the literal ability to get lost in a good book. Jasper Fforde is included at the Stop, You’re Killing Me! web site, where I noted that The Eyre Affair was nominated for the Dilys award, which is given to the book that mystery booksellers most enjoyed selling. (If you aren’t familiar with SYKM, it’s a great site, especially for answering series questions.) So at one time, at any rate, Thursday Next was embraced by the mystery crowd. Now it seems opinions differ. My library decided to classify the series as fantasy, and Borders and Barnes & Noble have shelved the series in fiction.
Exhibit B: Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files.
There’s no dispute here. Everyone considers this series about a Chicago-based wizard who makes a living as a private investigator, and who helps the police solves crimes, to be fantasy. As a clincher, it’s published by Roc, a sci-fi imprint of Penguin. But why is it fantasy and not mystery? Does it really matter that there’s magic involved? Aren’t we trying to find out whodunnit, the classic definition of a mystery?
In the end, I can’t answer my own questions. My library used to have a requirement that a book had to have a dead body to be a mystery. We’ve gotten a little more flexible over the years, in large part to accommodate the vagaries of genre borders. So if you have a book with a romance between a vampire and a private investigator set in an alternate Old West. . .well, good luck.
Cindy Harkness is a librarian, an advocate for rescued animals, and totally addicted to true crime television programs.