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I have a friend who loves mystery movies. For her, and I suspect many other fans of the genre, the appeal lies in the challenge – working out whodunit, whytheydunnit, and sometimes even whattheydun in the first place – as quickly as they can. And, evidently, letting me know at the first possible opportunity.
Personally, I’ve never really been a subscriber to this strategy. I’m fairly content to let my sleuths grind through the motives and the alibis and come to an eventual, inevitable conclusion on my behalf. I respect the process. ((Columbo would be a notable exception to this rule, since he always seems to know right from the start who’s responsible. It’s like he’s passively lording his superiority over us for the best part of each episode. I’m not a fan.))
Of course, it might be that I’m just lazy, but I think what appeals to me about mysteries is not so much the solutions as the questions, the gaps in our knowledge, the state of uncertainty. Mysteries are quantum events, occurring but only existing for a time, until they are resolved and disappear. Those gaps appear literally, too, as dark spaces – shadowy alleyways between buildings, secret gardens, misfiring amygdalae in amnesia victims. They are where mystery thrives – in novels, films, plays, and online, too, in mystery’s paranoid, internet-friendly offspring, conspiracy.
It’s these gaps that we celebrate in this month’s Mystery-themed issue of Litro. There’s the fantastically sinister tooth that appears in Mazin Saleem’s Meaningless Number, “tilted as though it belonged in the mouth of someone yawning or screaming”, just an ordinary tooth, but missing the mouth, head and body that we would otherwise expect to exist around it; there are a series of mundanely out of place objects in Working Techniques of the Amateur Detective by Thomas Binns, though the narrator is preoccupied throughout by a much more significant absence in his life; Across the Border by Anniken Blomberg contemplates not just a journey into one of those gaps, but the things you return with; Somebody Else’s Second Chance by Elishia Heiden deals with a frustrating gap of memory, and the stories that others are compelled to fill it with; and The Land & The Sea by Helen Jukes, which features a man caught not on one nor in the other, but somewhere between the two. Finally, Oli Belas, in his essay The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story, focuses on the figure of the detective – the character who steps into the shadowy spaces of the narrative, the character we willingly follow, some of us alongside, some of us behind.
Either way, we’re on the case. Care to join us?