The Structure of Mysteries

Why are detective mysteries so appealing? I think that it’s because they are a kind of ‘multi-story’ in that, as the mystery progresses, the reader is induced to create new stories. 

The other night I was watching a classic Agatha Christie mystery of the “Poirot” genre, when suddenly I had a realization about the nature and appeal of such mysteries. 

The story began by introducing the various characters, one of whom was the obvious victim-to-be: a sneering asshole who bullied people ruthlessly. Each of the other characters in turn took abuse from the villain, and thus it was with an air of inevitability that he was found dead in his study. But there were so many suspects from whom to choose! 

Christie gave us a clear anti-(red-herring) by showing us the younger man, drunk and angry, storm into the study shouting, and next we hear a thump as a body hits the floor. The young man cries out, “Oh, God!” and drunkenly departs the scene, stumbling as he goes. Obviously, he didn’t commit the murder — or did he? Our minds conjure up a story that fills in the details that we could not see: the young man storms in, strikes the victim, who somehow dies as a consequence, and the young man, realizing his unintended guilt, flees. There is another story, however: the older man was dead when the young man enters, the young man sees the body, and flees. But why then does the young man not rouse the household? We have two competing stories to explain what little we have seen.

Ah, but earlier, Christie presented another possibility: earlier in the day, the victim catches one of the servants rifling through his desk, and dismisses her on the spot, but permitting her to remain in the house until the next day. Clearly, this servant was up to no good, and the termination provides her with a motive for murder. But we didn’t see her at any time during the murder scene. So now we have a third story: the servant crept into the study earlier, waylaid the victim, found the object of her earlier search, and stole away.

Poirot is by chance on the scene (as always) and sets to work gathering evidence. As he probes deeper, we concoct new stories: the browbeaten business partner committed the murder to avoid the business calamity that he fears the victim is creating. The wife seemed unduly enamored of the business partner — perhaps they together colluded in the murder. And who was the mysterious figure seen lurking outside that night? Perhaps there’s a story there.

As usual, Poirot sifts through the evidence and zeroes in on the likely suspect. After an exciting chase, Poirot and Hastings catch the servant (who has fled the manor) in London just as she delivers some suspicious papers to the same stranger we had seen lurking in the garden. Aha! The crime is revealed! The servant and the stranger colluded in the murder and the subsequent theft of the secret papers.

But no! It turns out that the servant and stranger are sister and brother. They’re attempting to gather evidence to prove that the dastardly victim had swindled the brother. They had no motive to kill the victim.

At this point, Poirot solves the case through some act of divine intuition far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. He assembles the cast of suspects for the ancient ritual in which he tells the true story of the crime. The true murderer, he reveals, is a peripheral character whom we had paid little attention to. He has not shown up in any of the tidbits that have occupied our attentions in the mystery. Poirot reveals that he indeed had an excellent motive for the murder, a motive that nothing previously shown had hinted at. He goes on to explain exactly how the murder took place. In doing so, he pieces together the fragments of information that we have seen, showing how each of those odd bits fits into his story. The curtain closes on yet another triumph for Poirot.

The critical observation here is that Christie enticed us to imagine a great many stories, each of which was plausible at some point in the story. From this multiplicity of partially overlapping stories she forged a single story that contained all the true fragments of the other stories. The entire mystery is a kaleidoscope of stories, appearing and dissolving with each new development. The entertainment for us is that *we* are creating subordinate stories even as Christie tells the main story. A mystery engages our storytelling powers even as we absorb the main story. A weak mind would be tempted to call this process ‘interactive’, because the audience actively creates imaginary stories even as the main story unfolds. This is incorrect, because the audience in no manner changes the main story. The truth is that the main story elicits a complex reaction from the audience, in which the audience imagines a series of stories. This is a process of interpretation, not interaction. 

There’s an ironic parallel with games here. In a game, the player is presented with challenges that must follow a smooth upward path called the ‘learning curve’. That is, the player must find the initial play quite easy, but as the player proceeds, new and more difficult challenges arise that impose a smoothly increasing difficulty upon the player. The smoothness of this learning curve is crucial to the success of the game.

So too in the mystery must the player proceed in a smooth progression of stories. Christie first teases us into believing one story, but then presents us with a steady series of revelations, each of which forces us into a new story. This smooth progression of stories is culminated by the final revelation that, in the ideal, completely crushes the penultimate story and replaces it with a completely different story as the final truth. Considerable cleverness is required to contrive the pieces of the various stories to fit together in such as way as to permit a dramatic yet plausible re-arrangement of story fragments into the final whole. 

Perhaps a visual analogy will help clarify my meaning. Imagine a clever artist who sets to work drawing a picture. You watch over her shoulder as she works. After a few minutes you exclaim, “Oh, it’s a horse!” but she continues working and a moment later you say, “No, it’s a sailing ship”. As she adds more detail to it, you recognize it as different things. You can still see how you thought it was a horse, and then a sailing ship, but she has finished you recognize that the final picture is a baboon. 

Would not such an exercise be fascinating? Would it not stimulate your visual imagination? A mystery story does the same thing for your story imagination.