On NPR’s Morning Edition today, there was an interview with Junot Diaz, author of the excellent Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He had a lot to say about his experiences growing up as a Dominican immigrant in America. Towards the end of the interview, he made the point that what unites and defines us –all of us—as Americans is the desire to answer the question of what it means to be American.
I have to say that while most of the interview was a little tedious (Diaz seems as impressed with himself as everyone else is impressed with him), that last point resonated with me. See, while trying to come up with something for my regular Monday gig here on The Gargoyle, I’d been thinking a lot about mystery novels.
Some of us here at the Gothic Bookshop are big fans of mysteries (or crime novels, as a few of us like to call them, just because it sounds tough). Whether they’re cozies, hard-boiled novels, or straight-up procedurals, we eat them up. A lot of our customers go for mysteries, too, so we do our best to keep the newest and best examples of the stuff on hand. Of course, these novels are great fun to read, but I wonder if there’s something else that draws us towards these books, something that has to do with what Junot Diaz was talking about in his interview.
Mysteries have been a vital part of the American canon almost since its inception. Fairly or not, Edgar Allen Poe is universally credited for creating the genre with his stories featuring the cunning detective, Dupin. Early masters of hard-boiled detective writing not only were wildly popular but had broad global influence over the styles of contemporaneous and later writers. James M. Cain's influence on Camus’ The Stranger is the most well-known example**, but there are plenty of others. Many of our most important contemporary writers of fiction, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, draw heavily on the genre. Michael Chabon, in his award-winning (and freakin’ awesome) book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, uses the framework of the procedural mystery novel to explore themes of identity and alienation in modern Jewish culture.
And it’s not just out-and-out mystery novels, either. (Here comes one of my sweeping, only partially accurate pronouncements, so buckle up.) I would argue that the mystery is at the heart of all great American literature. The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird –these are all, at the core, novels dealing with secrets, slowly revealed. In other words: mysteries.
Maybe Junot Diaz is right. Maybe none of us knows what it means to be American, and maybe we’re all trying to figure it out. Maybe that’s why as writers and readers we turn to the story structure of the mystery novel again and again, and why we’ll keep doing so until we finally get the answer.
I sort of hope we never do.
** In the interest of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that I originally credited Dashiell Hammett with influencing Camus. My good friend & bowling teammate "The Rev" reminded me that it was in fact James M. Cain. Thanks, Rev!