It’s a fantasy! It’s a mystery!

Fantasy mysteries can be tough. Despite which, I seem to be writing a lot of them.
Mage’s Masquerade, which I was working on this week, is very much a Regency fantasy/mystery: Can Montgomery Sinclair unmask the Bonapartist traitor inside the Ministry of Magic?
Kernel of Truth, which I finished this week, is another: A murder mystery that turns out to have a supernatural element behind it.
And No Good Deed Goes Unpunished is a hardboiled detective story in which, again, the killings turn out to have a magical angle.
Of course, a lot of fantasy and horror has some sort of a mystery element: Unmasking the traitor, locating the treasure, figuring out what sort of unspeakable entity is behind the blood-drained corpses. But a fantasy mystery proper (my arbitrary definition, anyway) is a hybrid, a fantasy that takes the shape of a mystery story. Which means you make it clear, at the start, that solving the mystery is the primary (or a primary) focus of the tale (as I discuss here).
That means you have to set up a puzzle and find some way to solve it. The latter is often a tough one for me: I had no end of rewriting before Al Soares was plausibly able to put the pieces together in No Good Deed.
Another problem is that you can’t cheat the audience by using magic to pull a solution out of the hat. If truth spells or mind-reading exist, you have to establish that well before your detective uses them——and if she isn’t going to solve the case on Page Two, you have to plausibly explain why they don’t catch the villain. A last minute explanation (“Of course! He wore the ring of falsehood, which cancels out truth spells!”) is, again, cheating.
Having a protagonist who isn’t a magician himself is one way around it (it’s what I’ve done in all three mentioned stories). Of course, then you have to deal with how he or she stays alive when going up against someone more powerful, but overall, I find that easier to solve.
Even tougher than a fantasy mystery, I think, is a straight mystery with some fantastic element. It faces the same practical problems, but I think fantasy readers will accept a mystery story much easier than straight mystery readers will accept a fantasy (though having seen paranormal romance/mysteries on the shelf that may be less true than it used to be).
John Dickson Carr did three excellent ones over the years: The Devil in Velvet, Fire, Burn and The Burning Court. The first two are historical mysteries in which a modern-day protagonist winds up in the past with a murder to solve; the third involves a man convinced his wife is a reincarnated witch out to murder him, so the fantasy element is more overt.
Cornel Woolrich wrote one noir-thriller fantasy, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, which I finished yesterday. It’s an effective thriller (though with some plodding bits) in which a millionaire befriends a quiet little clairvoyant and after getting multiple tips, learns that he’s going to die in three weeks. Can his daughter and the local cops avert his death “in the jaws of a lion?” Although it’s marketed in mystery, there really isn’t one (one secondary mystery gets awkwardly injected into the story near the end), despite the police’ effort to prove this is all some kind of scam.
But of course, genre classification doesn’t matter when something works (except for marketing) and this works. There are several strong scenes (the roulette wheel and the trail of money at the beginning) and a dark pall over everything throughout the story——Woolrich was apparently obsessed with thoughts of his own death, and it shows.
I’m not sure I can learn anything from it that applies to my own ventures, but who knows?


Filed under Reading, Short Stories

3 responses to “It’s a fantasy! It’s a mystery!

  1. Pingback: Movies and Books « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: David Brooks does not get noir « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Magic in history | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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