Monday, November 12, 2012

Dickens and his 'mysteries'

I'm back from travelling in the USA, stopping in Nashville and San Francisco. San Francisco, wonderful city that it is, puts me in mind of Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon.

I admire the classics of American 'hard-boiled' mystery, particularly Hammett and Chandler, because these mysteries, with their intense action and dynamic interaction between the detective and the crime, are so different from the detached English style of detective fiction. It reminds me that there really is no one kind of mystery, and that a mystery plot is not necessarily confined to an intricate, logical puzzle with a definable solution, conducted solely as a game between author and reader.

Dickens, for instance, was drawn to mysteries and mystery plots. He dropped a murder into Bleak House, and we can be pretty sure that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was going to be the portrait of a murderer, but he resisted the idea that he would use mystery to baffle, trick or even fool the reader. The guilty figure in a Dickensian mystery is usually pretty clear (see 'Hunted Down', for example). Dickens used mystery to create suspense, to draw us into stories, to make the reader wonder, and also to illuminate the darker recesses of the human mind. Dickens did not want his reader to solve a mystery, but to experience many mysteries. His detectives could show a sharp light on certain events, but the light also made the shadows dance.