Why Mysteries Are So Fascinating--and How That Reason Connects to Fiction Generally

In an episode of House, House--while sleep deprived--begins to witness exactly how he makes deductions. The process by which he makes connections and figures out cases is slowed down/exposed.

"This is so cool," House says.

And it is.

This slowed-down process is, I think, what makes mysteries so compelling. It isn't so much the SURPRISE ending. If so, people would never rewatch mysteries; I know people who don't, but most people do, hence CSI, Law & Order, House, Castle, Columbo, and multiple other mysteries are available on DVD--to be watched over and over and over.

Often, I will rewatch a mystery right up until the denouement. I keep the denouement on, but I start reading or typing on my blog. After all, I know what it is. What I turned the episode on for was the middle process of piecing together the mystery.

To a large degree, this piecing together explains and excuses dumb dialog. You know: the dialog where detectives define cop terms for each other or explain why they should look at C suspect rather than A suspect. And you're thinking, "Uh, guys, that decision would have happened two days ago in real life."

But what we are seeing is the slowed-down process--like House, we are watching how the dots get connected. The fact is, most police officers/detectives act on a combination of instinct and experience. By the time you do X numbers of cases about Y, you know to check suspect C immediately. But we get to see how the brain actually works when instinct and experience come together. (On a side note: yes, I think this happens. I think the brain does process and make connections even when we aren't aware of it happening. After staying awake all night a few years ago, I went to work. I was closing the car door, and I could feel my brain deciding to reach out and lift the handle of the door to make sure the door was locked. My brain was actually operating before my physical response. You don't realize how seldom that happens until you haven't slept for 24 hours. Yes, it is cool. It is also really freaky and dangerous.)

And I think that to a large degree, this business of showing connections is what makes all fiction compelling, not just mysteries. I wish I could say I was the first one to come up with this theory; I'm not, I just can't remember who did. But the first time I came across this theory, I went, "Yes! Yes!"

Human beings love to uncover things from a particular perspective. With most mysteries, if you're told the story straight--woman doesn't want to disappoint her parents who expect her to do great things with her life, so she sets up a fake charity, claiming to help people in Central America but actually she is pocketing the cash and when a young intern figures out what she is doing, she kills the intern--it is still interesting (and this is mostly how Columbo episodes operate) but when it is over, it's over. Unless you have Peter Falk investigating, there isn't any there for the there to go. (And even with Peter Falk, you have a particular perspective: HOW will he uncover the truth?)

But this particular Law & Order: CI episode doesn't start from beginning or even with the main players. It starts with the detectives investigating a loose end that leads them and us back to the main players.

In other words, we uncover information bit by bit from a particular perspective.

And this is how ALL fiction operates: information is uncovered, and the actual act of uncovering fascinates us. We are fascinated when the boy dressed as a girl is revealed as a girl. We are fascinated when the neighbor is revealed as a spy. We are fascinated when Bruce Wayne is revealed as Batman (to us, if not to the book/film's characters) no matter how many times it happens.

This is why supposedly too-sophisticated-to-use-old-devices writers who DON'T want to give viewers the satisfaction of the couple-running-to-each-other-across-the-field miss the point: we want to see the same thing over and over and over again in different guises. We want to see kids reunited with parents. We want to see husbands and wives forgiven. We want to see truth uncovered and told.

Let's face it: we homo sapiens are just a bunch of voyeurs.

And the best fiction satisfies our voyeuristic desires--without making us feel lousy about it.

1 comment:

Eugene said...

If you haven't seen James Burke's Connections, he's uploaded it to YouTube (also available from Netflix). He says himself (in the second episode) that he constructs the narratives like detective stories (or medical mysteries), researching each scientific breakthrough until he can find an obscure and unexpected historical thread that will lead him (and the audience) inexorably to the big discovery. As you point out, he can do this over and over and it's an eye-opening thrill every time.