I'm thrilled to welcome back author, Augustus Cileone to my blog today for his third post in my writing tips series. Today he will be discussing the allure of mysteries, a topic I find quite fascinating myself. Although this isn't a straight writing tips-type of post, I think it does speak to the issue of what draws readers, particularly to the mystery genre.
In case you forgot, here's a little bit about my guest:
Augustus Cileone won the Dark Oak Mystery Contest sponsored by Oak Tree Press, for the novel, A Lesson in Murder, about homicides associated with a Philadelphia Quaker school. His second novel, Feast or Famine, a satire, deals with a traumatized man dealing with his Catholic Italian American upbringing in the 1960's and 1970's. His latest novel, Out of the Picture, published by Sage Words Publishing, is a mystery loaded with movie references, and deals with social outsiders. He has been honored for his writing by Annual Art Affair, Hidden River Arts, the annual Writer’s Digest writing competition for two plays, The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, the Montgomery County Community College’s Annual Writers’ Club Poetry and Fiction Contest, Filmmakers International Screenwriting Awards, and the Annual StoryPros International Screenplay Contest. His short stories appear in the anthologies entitled South Philly Fiction and Death Knell V, and in the literary periodical Schuylkill Valley Journal.
And now, Mr. Cileone:
The Allure of a Mystery
Many people have heard the phrase, “Everybody loves a mystery.” William G. Tapply, who wrote The Elements of Mystery Fiction, and is the author of the Brady Coyne mystery series of novels, stated in the March, 2007 edition of The Writer magazine the following:
What sets mystery novels apart from other types of fiction and makes them particularly appealing to fans are their whodunit puzzles. Mystery readers want to detect clues, to sniff out red herrings … to finger suspects. In other words, they want to play detective.
The derivation of a red herring, which is where the writer leads the reader astray, comes from the English practice of dragging a red herring along a path to fool hunting dogs. I don’t know why anyone would want to fool hunting dogs, but I guess you would have to ask the British to find out. Mr. Tapply goes on to say how readers like to match wits with the sleuth of the story, but the readers will be disappointed if they figure out the mystery before the main character does. You may get satisfaction from guessing some parts of the mystery correctly, but you get a charge out of a story that fools you, and then you look back and say, oh yeah, there were the clues, and that was clever how I was fooled. I still can’t believe I didn’t guess the ending of The Sixth Sense.
But I think the appeal of the murder mystery goes even further. Patricia Cornwell, one of the biggest best selling mystery novelists, said in the same edition of The Writer:
"I cannot fully explain my fascination with violence, but I suspect it has to do with my fear of it … my writing is dark, filled with nightscapes and fear. Isolation and a sense of loss whisper throughout my prose like something perpetually stirring in the wind. It is not uncommon for people to meet me and find it incongruous that I write the sort of books I do."
I think what she says speaks to the old idea about why we want to look away from a car accident, but can’t. We are both drawn to and repelled by the horrible. We want to understand, and are fascinated by, the killer who crosses the boundaries of society. But, at the same time we desire safety from and ignorance of terrible acts.
Patricia Cornwell’s quote also addresses the concept of our double nature. Outwardly she may seem the last person to deal with violence, but inwardly she can explore the dark side of a character in her writing. This concept brings up the theme of surface appearance versus inner reality. A big influence on me was Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. A brilliant psychiatrist, very sophisticated culturally, is in fact a murdering cannibal. This duality may also explain the popularity of the serial killer character Dexter in the books and TV show featuring him. He appears to be a normal person working at his forensics job, and is a dedicated brother. In fact, he is a serial killer. The extra twist is that he is someone meting out justice against vicious killers.
On a personal level, I became interested in mysteries through films. My father took me to see Alfred Hitchcock movies. I especially liked Psycho, so I became interested in exploring the dark side of characters. I then started reading Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen novels. I love a complicated mystery because it is fun to try and solve the puzzle and be surprised by the twists in the plot. Two movies that influenced me in this way are The Last of Sheila (written by Anthony Perkins of Psyhco fame and Stephen Sondheim) and the original Sleuth, based on the Anthony Schaffer play. Wanting to explore complex stories is probably why I was addicted to the TV series Lost, and loved the 1960’s TV show The Prisoner, which may be the two most enigmatic shows ever written.
Some classify the mystery as some type of second rate genre. I think this criticism is a disservice. The very act of wanting to find out the solution to mysteries is basic to humans: it takes place in science, mathematics, social sciences, psychology, in fact in just about every discipline. People vary on how much they thrive on answering questions and solving problems in their lives: some love it, doing crossword or picture puzzles, while others find questing after answers very taxing. But, we can’t escape it. Mystery stories at the very least provide an entertaining outlet for this primal drive; at the most, they help us to explore complex themes of what it is to be human.
From the Amazon page:
Vince Singleton, a writer, part-time English professor at Philadelphia Sacred Covenant University, and huge movie fan, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He witnessed the accidental shooting of his wife by a policeman during a robbery. Vince, however, suspects that her death was intentional. Now, an old friend of his is found dead amid unusual clues. Vince helps the lieutenant working the case, despite his wariness of policemen. Faculty members associated with animal abuse are murdered and strange items are discovered near the bodies. Vince determines that the clues refer to movies, and, with the help of his daughter, his journalist brother, and a female professor, tries to find the killer before another person is taken … out of the picture.
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