Elements of Mystery EQ: What makes a mystery story? What is Noir?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Both mystery and crime specifically bounce between the emotions of alarm, which is a mix of surprise and fear, and curiosity, a mix of surprise and trust. A good mystery story will constantly surprise audiences with misdirection and false clues, alarm them through various acts of violence, and pique their curiosity with who the culprit ultimately is.

Before we start, it's important to understand the difference between the genres of mystery and crime. Mystery follows the perspective of the detective character, who tries to discover who the culprit is that committed a crime--the surprise at the end is the identity of the culprit. Crime follows the perspective of the culprit some if not most of the time. Stories that go between the detective's view and the culprit's view (like The Silence of the Lambs or The Dark Knight) are considered crime as the ultimate surprise is not who did the crime but if the culprit will get away with the crime.

Another quick distinction needs to be made between mystery and noir, a popular subgenre of mystery that came out of the pulp novels of the early 20th Century. Noir features darker themes, richer violence, and more specific tropes than regular mystery stories, yet the noir feel and aesthetic are what most modern audiences think of when they hear "mystery." For each trope, both general mystery and specific noir stereotypes will be discussed.

The Detective

The protagonist of a mystery is a detective. A detective's role is to uncover a mystery by decoding clues and protect victims of a crime. This role doesn't have to be filled by an actual member of a police department--some detectives are amateurs (Jessica Fletcher, Mma. Ramotswe), some are private investigators (Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes), and some are Batman. If a detective is not part of a police department, they will often befriend someone in the police that will help them--Fletcher has Sheriff Metzger, Holmes has Inspector Lestrade, Batman has Commissioner Gordon, etc. Many detectives also have a partner who helps them in crime detection--Mma. Ramotswe has her secretary Mma. Makutsi, Sam Spade has his partner Miles Archer, Holmes has Dr. Watson, Batman has a variety of Robins and Batgirls, etc.

Unlike the many popular female detectives of the past century (Mma. Ramotswe, Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Veronica Mars), the noir detective is almost exclusively male. He is a constant bachelor who prefers solitude. He is hard-boiled, meaning he engages in vice (smoking, drinking, drug use) and is not afraid to get violent. These tropes actually come from Sherlock Holmes, who smoked a pipe, was addicted to opium, and was known to pummel suspects who attacked him. While Homes defined their behavior, Humphrey Bogart (who portrayed both Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe) defined the noir detective's look--a fedora and trenchcoat. The hard-boiled detective isn't afraid to break the law to get results and trusts nobody.

"Who Did It?"

All crime stories start with a crime or the threat of a crime, typically a murder. A giant hound seems to have frightened an aging monarch to death. An albino monk shoots a curator at the Louvre. An old woman disappears off a moving train and only one other person remembers her. A mob assassin was shot in his bathtub the same night a bomb is sent to the D.A.'s house. Someone stabbed Mr. Body in the middle of a dinner party. Often, the detective is hired to take the case, though sometimes the detective will take up the case because the victim was a personal friend or to satisfy his or her own curiosity. The reader follows along with the detective, always questioning Who did it?, or as many mystery novels say, Whodunnit?

The Rogues' Gallery

The first step a detective takes in solving the crime is assembling a list of suspects, colorfully referred to as a "rogues' gallery." The detective and any assistants will then interview each person in the gallery to hear each one's story and determine who is lying. While Pulp classics like Dick Tracy have fantastic and obviously-named rogues (Flattop Jones, Tess Trueheart, Vitamin Flintheart, Rughead), most rogues galleries are populated by everyday people, including the client who hired the detective. In a good detective story, EVERYONE is a suspect.

So how does a detective assemble a rogues' gallery? Often, it's as simple as looking at geographical proximity to the murder. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, when Hercule Poirot discovers the American in the neighboring cabin is murdered, his rogues' gallery is simply the thirteen other passengers on the train. When Mikael Blomkvist is retained to uncover the facts behind Harriet Vanger's disappearance, all his suspects are illustrated on the Vanger family tree. Occasionally, a detective will only start with a couple rogues and build a fuller gallery as he or she gets deeper into the case.

The Femme Fatale

One rogue in particular is found in almost every noir story and in many outside noir: the femme fatale. A femme fatale (sometimes called a vamp) is an attractive seductresses who bring ruin to men who get involved with her. Sometimes she hires the detective, and sometimes she's the culprit, but she is always a suspect. Despite the femme fatale's dubious morals, they often carry on an affair with the detective and make the detective question his own judgment.

Popular femme fatales include Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Madeleine Elster in Vertigo, Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy, Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Perhaps the most iconic femme fatale is Phyllis Dietrichson from the noir thriller Double Indemnity. In her portrayal, Barbra Stanwyck gave the femme fatale the classic look of the long hair over half the face, wealthy dresses and veiled hats, and the constant presence of a small "Saturday night special" gun in her handbag.

The Noir Ingenue

Double Indemnity also solidified an opposing trope: the noir ingenue. An ingenue is an archetype that appears throughout literature--she's a purehearted young girl who is inexperienced in life and is naive. The noir ingenue, however, is goodhearted but not innocent--she dabbles in smoking, drinking, deceit, and sometimes even violence, just like the detective and femme fatale. Unlike the femme fatale, the noir ingenue genuinely loves others and often fights the femme fatale for the affections of the detective. Sadly, just like the femme fatale, bad luck comes to the men in the noir ingenue's life; while a femme fatale will betray and kill their lovers, the noir ingenue sees her lovers killed trying to protect them. The noir ingenue may even be complicit in the crime, but does so for genuinely good reasons.

In Double Indemnity, the noir ingenue is Phyllis's stepdaughter Lola Dietrichson, who is young and naive but also smokes and has an affair with Nino behind her father's back. Lola gets close to Walter and accuses Phyllis of the murder, so Phyllis attempts to seduce Nino away from Lola. Both men in Lola's life pay: Nino is framed for the Dietrichson murder and Walter dies when he tells Phyllis to leave Lola alone. Other noir ingenues include Sin City's Nancy Callahan, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander, The Hound of the Baskervilles' Miss Stapleton, and The Big Sleep's Vivian Rutledge.

Brushes with Calamity

Being a detective is risky. As most cases start with a murder, the detective is dealing with people who are not afraid to kill whoever gets in the way. Thus, the detective typically encounters several brushes with calamity before the case is solves. Sometimes a hired goon beats them in an alley. Sometimes their office or apartment is ransacked. Sometimes a member of the rogues' gallery also winds up dead. Sometimes the detective is "slipped a mickey" (i.e., drugged) and is left somewhere for dead. Sometimes the detectives loved ones are attacked. These events heighten the tension and often give the detective a personal stake in solving the case. This also brings out the "alarm" part of the cathartic response to mystery.


Another way mystery writers heighten tension is by employing misdirection so the reader doesn't solve the case before the detective does. Misdirection bolsters the "curiosity" part of the cathartic response to mystery. Sometimes, the misdirection is a dead end, where a previously promising line of questioning turns out to go nowhere. Other times, writers set up a red herring, or a character or object intentionally used to mislead. For example, in The Lady Vanishes, Iris searches the train for the missing Miss Froy and discovers a woman dressed exactly like Miss Froy--this woman is a red herring intended to throw off anyone who noticed the old woman who boarded the train was gone.

Some writers even prematurely end the first case and add a twist second case at the end. For example, Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep is hired to find a set of photographs Arthur Geiger is using to blackmail Carmen Sternwood, yet after the photos are recovered and the culprits are killed, Marlowe starts investigating a loose end: Sean Regan, a suspect he couldn't find; this leads to a bigger, more sinister mystery. In Dial M For Murder, Tony hires an assassin to kill his wife, and the audience expects the story to be about Detective Hubbard solving her murder; however, she kills her attacker and the plot pivots to Tony framing her for murder instead.

The Parlor Scene

The climax of a mystery is the reveal of who committed the crime by the detective. In Victorian detective novels, this was always done in the same way: the parlor scene. A parlor was essentially the living room of the Victorian Era and where most socializing happened. Most of these novels started with a person killed in the parlor at a party. At the end of the investigation, the detective would invite all the rogues who hadn't been killed off into the parlor and explain, clue by clue, how they solved the crime and who the culprit is. The importance of the parlor scene is two-fold: one, with all the suspects gathered, it makes the reveal more dramatic; two, by taking place where the murder happened, every clue can be visually referenced by all involved and the detective's logic can be easily followed.

While parlors have disappeared, the parlor scene has not. In noir and most modern novels, the parlor scene is a one-on-one confrontation between the culprit and the detective where the rest of the rogues are not present. This caught on in noir over traditional parlor scenes because all the other rogues had been killed by that point in most noirs. Yet this is still a parlor scene because it occurs at the climax and has the detective reveal step-by-step how he or she discovered the truth. This scene is pivotal for a reader (as the whole point of a mystery is the reveal) and is often the first scene a mystery writer writes to make sure they get it right.

Speaking of which, not all mysteries have a typical ending. This producers of Clue released three different endings that played at different screenings to baffle audiences. Agatha Christie wrote one novel where all the suspects committed the crime, and another where the story ends without the culprit's reveal. Sometimes the detective dies (as in Sin City) or the crime had no motive and was a tragic accident ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue"). While all of these ending break the typical mold, they are nevertheless surprising and logical to readers, which still makes them satisfying endings. The only bad end to a mystery is one that doesn't surprise the reader or one that makes no sense.

Mystery Subgenres (Besides Noir)
  • COZY MYSTERIES: Cozy mysteries are the opposite of noir. Instead of an experienced, hard-boiled male investigator, the detective in a cozy is an amateur female or teenager who is bumbling to the point of comedy. While death can be involved, there is very little violence or seduction. There are no "male fatales" or serious risks to the protagonist. Popular cozies include the Miss Marple series, the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun, Scooby Doo, and Murder, She Wrote.
  • LOCKED ROOM MYSTERY: A mystery story where the crime (often murder) happens in an almost impossible situation: in a locked room with no one having entered or leaving. The first popular locked room story was "The Murders of the Rue Morgue," though other popular locked room mysteries include several Sherlock Holmes stories, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None.
  • INVERTED MYSTERY: In an inverted mystery, the story starts with a brief scene where the culprit of the crime is revealed. The rest of the story then follows detectives trying to figure out who did it, while the audience remains enthralled to see how "the perfect crime" is spoiled. An excellent example of this is Double Indemnity: Walter Neff reveals that he's guilty from the start, and the rest of the film splits focus between Keyes's attempts to solve his crime and Walter's attempts to figure out Phyllis's true motivations for murder. Other notable inverted mysteries are Dial M for Murder, Death Note, and most episodes of Colombo.
  • POLICE PROCEDURAL: This straddles both mystery and crime as it examines the legal process after a criminal is caught going to conviction. Some procedural crimes, like CSI and Law and Order follow the detectives and are therefore mysteries; others, like Oz or The Wire, focus on the culprits (innocent or not) and are therefore crime stories. These function a bit differently, as the crime is passed and the question is will they get punished for it?

Works Referenced

The Big Sleep. Directed by Howard Hawks, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Warner Bros., 1946.

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code (2004). Anchor, 2009.

Chinatown. Directed by Roman Polanski, featuring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Paramount, 1974.

Christie, Agatha. And Then There Were None (1939). Harper, 2011.

- - - . Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Harper, 2011.

Clue. Directed by Jonathan Lynn, featuring Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd. Paramount, 1985.

Dick Tracy. Directed by Warren Beatty, featuring Beatty and Al Pacino. Warner Bros., 1990.

Double Indemnity. Directed by Billy Wilder, featuring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Standwyck. Paramount, 1944.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Dover, 1994.

Knott, Frederick. Dial M for Murder (1952). Dramatists, 1982.

The Lady Vanishes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. Gaumont, 1938.

Larsson, Stieg. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005). Vintage, 2011.

Loeb, Jeff and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween (1998). DC Comics, 2007.

The Maltese Falcon. Directed by John Huston, featuring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. Warner Bros, 1941.

Murder, She Wrote. Featuring Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley. CBS, 1984-1996.

Poe, Edgar Allen. The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841). CreateSpace, 2014.

Sin City. Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, featuring Jessica Alba and Bruce Willis. Miramax, 2005.

Smith, Alexander McCall. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998). Anchor, 2003.

Vertigo. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, featuring James Stewart and Kim Novak. Paramount, 1958.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Directed by Robert Zemeckis, featuring Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd. Touchstone, 1988.

Created By
Brandon Coon


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