Why do Mysteries Grab Us?
By Ken Ludwig
This article is published on Breaking Character, Samuel French's online magazine and is part of the first ever November Mystery Month, in honor of the 60th Anniversary of Agatha Christie’s THE MOUSETRAP.
Read all of Ken's articles on Breaking Character
About four years ago our family went on vacation in England, and during the London portion of the trip we went to the theatre and saw The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. As you may know, The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history. When we saw it, it had been running for fifty-six years (be still my heart) and it’s still running today as I write this.
As I watched the play unfold that night and saw the joy that it gave to our entire family, I resolved to try and write a mystery of my own. However, I knew, even then, that I wouldn’t have a chance of writing a good one until I figured out the allure of mysteries on the stage, and how and why the great ones entertain us so powerfully.
I started by reading every good mystery play I could lay my hands on. (Note: the phrase “mystery play” can also refer to the succession of religious plays written from the 10th to the 16th century, illustrating Bible stories and performed by craft guilds. However, these rarely involved strychnine in the soup or eccentric lady detectives in pork pie hats and are not the mysteries referred to in this essay.) What I learned from all my reading is that the greatest mystery plays written have certain elements in common, and by recognizing these elements, I was able to understand more deeply the genre I was trying to tackle. Here is a summary of some of the lessons I learned from my foray into the literature of mysteries.
1. The greatest mystery plays are plotted meticulously. They’re not character studies of a freewheeling nature; that’s not their territory. Think of the three great Agatha Christie stage mysteries, The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution, and And Then There Were None. Each one is an absolute model of architectural plotting.
When we speak of plot, it’s worth remembering the definition of plot offered by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel. He illustrates the difference between story and plot as follows:
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.
In other words, a plot requires causality. It’s not just “and then and then and then.” Great thrillers sometimes take this form, but not great mysteries. In a mystery, one event must lead logically to the next. Events are caused by other events. A mystery play that lacks a good plot in this sense – that is not well plotted architecturally – is never a very good one.
I recently came across a long-lost essay written in the 1930s by Agatha Christie herself, reprinted in the English publication The Guardian Review. In it, Christie confirms the need for tight architectural plotting in a mystery. She says, “I think the austerity and stern discipline that goes to making a ‘tight’ detective plot is good for one’s thought processes. It is the kind of writing that does not permit loose or slipshod thinking. It all has to dovetail, to fit in as part of a carefully constructed whole.”
2. The plots of great mystery plays are relentlessly linear. Mysteries take us on a ride, starting at the beginning and driving straight through to the end. Like roller coasters, the best mysteries may twist and turn, climb and plunge, but they’re always headed straight forward and zoom on to the finish.
Because the best mystery plays are so linear, there is rarely time for subplots. Everything usually stays on track and contributes to the main story. Think of Deathtrap by Ira Levin. This story about a writer of mystery plays who plans and executes a real murder, grabs us from the first minute and never lets go. Interestingly, it’s not really a whodunit so much as a whydunit – at least for the first half.
Equally compelling in the same way is Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer, about a man revenging his wife’s infidelity: I’ve seen this one described as a whodunwhat – which reminds us that mysteries don’t need to be formulaic, as they’re sometimes described. On the contrary, originality thrives in the world of mystery, be it in the basic plot, the setting of the story, the point of view, and, certainly, in the final twist.
But the one thing the best mystery plays have in common is that there are no superfluous subplots, even for purposes of theme. Great mysteries drive straight onward, staying on track from beginning to end.
Of course mysteries sometimes contain red herrings: developments that make us believe that someone other than the culprit committed the crime. But in the best mysteries, the red herrings are woven into the forward motion of the play. There are loads of red herrings, for example, in The Mousetrap. Indeed, they make up the bulk of the play. The play begins by telling us that a gruesome murder was recently committed, thus laying out the exposition. It then spends most of the rest of the time introducing us to suspect after suspect until the real killer is finally revealed. Christie uses the same technique in her mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express. And in both cases she adds a terrific unforeseen twist at the end.
When I started to write my own mystery play, The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays, I came up with a mantra for myself based on all my prior mystery reading. Just as President Clinton put a note above his desk that said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” I put a note above my own desk that said, “Relentlessly Entertaining.” I decided that the best way to write a mystery for the stage was to make the piece as relentlessly entertaining as I possibly could – another way of saying that the forward propulsion of the piece should never flag.
3. The greatest mystery plays, like the greatest plays of any kind, somehow, almost magically, have resonances to other, deeper layers of meaning. Take the greatest mystery play ever written, Hamlet. It begins with the line “Who’s there?” and it spends the rest of the night exploring that question. Who’s there? Who am I? Who is the ghost? Who is Claudius? And in the midst of these questions, it manages to be (if it’s possible to see it objectively any more) an edge-of-the-seat mystery-thriller where the victim’s son tries to figure out whether to trust a ghost who tells him to kill his own uncle in revenge for the brutal murder of his father.
As Hamlet above all others reminds us, mysteries speak to something central to us all. We try to find out who the killer is just the way we question other, deeper questions of identity. We want answers to vital questions that can make the world more rational and sensible because answers give us peace of mind.
4. Mysteries by their very nature contain certain recurring themes. These usually include questions about death, about justice, and about appearance versus reality. Let’s start with death: Has there ever been a really successful stage mystery that doesn’t have a dead body in it? If there has been, I don’t know of it. In some stage mysteries, the death is far in the past – think of Angel Street (retitled Gaslight for the movies) by Patrick Hamilton, in which the murder occurred years before the opening of the play. By contrast, in Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott, the murder doesn’t occur until well into the second scene of the play. Similarly, in Sleuth and Deathtrap, the first half of the play is spent plotting the malefaction. But whether the death is remote or recent, onstage or off, death of some kind usually plays a part.
Sometimes the death is morally ambiguous, which raises questions about justice. Should the culprit be punished if the victim is a predator on the community? Hamlet raises this question squarely. Is Hamlet morally wrong for murdering Claudius if Claudius in fact murdered Hamlet’s father in cold blood?
I raise this question myself in The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays. It’s hardly the central question of the play, but I’ve spoken with audience members who find the issue of justice to be one of the most interesting parts of the whole proceeding. If the culprit who is finally identified killed a character who was hateful to the whole society, is that culprit blameworthy or worthy of praise? And should that kind of culprit be punished, either by society or by the law? The answers to these questions are never clear-cut, nor should they be. But it’s interesting to remember that we certainly root for Prince Hamlet every step of the way.
What about appearance versus reality? In one sense, all drama almost automatically raises this dichotomy. Actors play characters in the play; and while we’re meant to be invested in the characters who embody the story, we also realize that we’re sitting in a darkened room watching actors who have been hired to play parts. What is the appearance and what is the reality?
Mystery plays always take this question one step further. Many of the characters, and certainly the culprit, are disguising their true identities for the sake of some kind of escape, be it from real life or from the hangman. Disguise is central to mysteries, just as it’s central to our own lives. Do we want anyone to know who we really are? How do we hide our true identities? What happens when our true identities are revealed? These questions are central to all stage mysteries, from Hamlet to The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow. And this is one of the reasons that we find mysteries so endlessly fascinating: Mysteries are journeys trying to answer the question of who we really are.
5. Finally, what we’re really seeking when we look for answers in a mystery is a sense of order. In The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays, I have the inspector in the play, Inspector Goring, say to the protagonist, William Gillette (the actor who played Sherlock Holmes on stage for over thirty years): “Order from chaos. Order from chaos. It’s what I do.”
And that’s what mysteries do. They fit the pieces together. First, all the disparate elements of the story are thrown up in the air by the murder or other corrupting event. Then, miraculously, all those elements fall back to earth and fit together again, like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle, into a social order that society recognizes and approves.
We as humans seem to crave that sense of order. We find it satisfying and it gives us peace. It seems to me that it’s somehow related to the puzzles that many of us like to solve on a day-to-day basis, like crosswords and Sudokus. Solving those puzzles and filling in all the space in an orderly manner gives us a sense of reassurance and closure.
Every mystery play I can think of – from the earliest examples of the genre, like Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle and William Gillette, which premiered in 1899, to more recent examples, like The 39 Steps, which premiered in 2005 – has an ending where good triumphs over evil and society rights itself after a period of discord. In a sense, that’s the very definition of a mystery. Order from chaos. It’s what they do.