Monday, August 23, 2010

Whodunit -- Whyreadit?

Why are mystery novels so popular?

A writer, a creative writing teacher and a high school science teacher meet at a party... No punch line, just a fascinating discussion on why mystery novels are so popular. Our conclusion? The classic story arc is the culprit.

Robert Heinlein once described humans as a rationalizing species. Terry Pratchett went one step further to call us storytelling animals. History began when we started writing those stories down. Whether we were describing the last hunt or trying to make sense of why the wind blows and the sun comes up every morning, we told stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Life is open-ended and often inexplicable. Stories are not. Or they weren't.

Modern literature is often as open-ended, inexplicable and grim as life itself.

Science fiction can be even darker since it's deeper purpose is to comment on life today by extrapolating elements into the future, or by transplanting our problems onto a different planet and alien species.

A good mystery guarantees satisfaction by the end of the book. Mysteries may involve gruesome murders or other violent crimes, but you know that by the end of the book you will know who did it, as well as how and why. They follow the classic - even prehistoric - pattern of having a story arc with allies and enemies of the hero revealing themselves in the course of the tale. There may be twists and misdirection, but at the end, the reader goes "Ah-hah!" not "Huh?" (Not unlike a good joke which is another form of classic storytelling.)

I used to read a lot of Science Fiction as a teen and in my twenties. My mother, on the other hand, never went closer to SF than Star Trek.  That at least proposed a positive future. "If I want to be depressed, I read the newspaper," she'd say. Now that I've reached the age she was when she made that statement, I completely understand her point of view.

I enjoy being challenged by a book. I don't mind reading about explicit sex or violence or graphic forensic content (so long as it isn't gratuitous - that's just bad writing). But I do want the story I'm reading to work out and make sense by the end - a good mystery does that and challenges me to solve the case along with the detective. If I wanted to be frustrated, I'd read the news.


The books in the photo were from the stack of best novel entries for the 2010 Arthur Ellis Awards. Information about the 2011 Arthur Ellis Awards for excellence in Canadian crime writing will be going up soon on crimewriterscanada.com/awards/arthur-ellis-awards.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sweet Sixteen

Sweet sixteen and never been... 

Well, I'd been kissed. In fact, at sixteen, I had just broken up with boy friend number two. I got a "Dear Ali" letter when he went off to work on a farm for the summer. I was the typical angst-filled teen for the summer. That is, I cried a lot and wrote bad poetry by night, and by day I strutted my stuff showing how I was really okay.

Broken heart notwithstanding, I felt I had something to strut back then. A couple of years before I felt like the proverbial ugly duckling. A year or so later, I would start yo-yo dieting and hiding beneath over-sized sweaters. But at sixteen I felt intelligent, powerful and beautiful. I felt like I was finally becoming the person I was supposed to be.

I hope my niece Claire feels that good.

Claire is turning sixteen today. She is gorgeous, independent, powerful and full of the typical teen angst and hormones. She's more like her mother (my sister) than me, but she sparked my memories and this blog.


I can't remember what my sixteenth birthday was like. I know it didn't involve a big party because I stopped having big parties (at my request) when I was ten. I did get talked into a big party when I was twenty-one. (My mother told everyone I'd never marry and that they should give me household gifts now.) I was surprised by a party at age thirty, and decided that one was warranted at fifty, but no party for sweet sixteen.

I can't remember what I was given. I am sure it wasn't a nose ring -- which is what I gave Claire. We went out for it together. Now I think of it, my mother might have taken me out for a piece of jewelry too. Not a nose ring. The only think I pierced was my ears and after that I cried because my lobes had holes in them forever. At sixteen you're at the age when it's easier to be taken out to get a present than be surprised by one.

I do remember what it felt like to be sixteen. I remember admiring the curves of my hips when I pulled on my jeans. I remember whistles and crude comments I'd pretend I hadn't heard. And I remember being sure of myself and so sure I was right about everything.

It was sweet.