Magic and Mystery

When I was growing up, my mom had a couple of bookcases full of mysteries in the hall upstairs, outside my room. Although I walked by those bookcases every day, I was never remotely interested in their contents, my young mind being almost completely consumed with fantasy and science fiction.

As you get older, you learn that some things change and some things don’t. This rather stale crumb of wisdom means, in my case, that I still read (and write) fantasy. Science fiction, not so much. On the other hand, these days I often read mysteries–generally those belonging to the ‘cozy’ category and more specifically, ‘Golden Age’ mysteries, which were written from the 1930s through the 1950s. Most of them are English–Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, et al–though there were also some notable American authors like John Dickson Carr and Elizabeth Daly.

Am I just hopelessly schizophrenic, or is there a common thread here? (Well, yes, both could be true, but let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Note that I’m not really talking about mixed genres. An element of mystery is found in many stories of different types. For example, Dickens’ Bleak House and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov are, among other things, murder mysteries. On a lowlier and more personal note, my two published books include mysteries of a sort–in The Road to Hel, who is the traitor? And in Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head, who is the narrator, and what made his friend the hermit renounce the world?

But here, I’m comparing ‘pure’ fantasies and mysteries, fantasy first. What makes a fantasy story? It might have dragons, or not. It could be full of elves, or infested with vampires. It could take place almost anywhere and the plot could be whatever you like. I’d argue that at bottom, it’s the presence of working magic that defines fantasy. That’s what removes fantasy from the realm of the mundane, from Lord Dunsany’s ‘the fields we know.’

It seems to me now mysteries also contain a sort of magic. The murder itself is something that (we hope) distances the mystery story from the everyday realm. It must be, of course, a puzzling and well plotted murder, not the result of some random mugging. It must be a murder that is itself a sort of magical attack, the evil ‘magician’ using this means to impose his or her will on the world. This evil ‘magic’ must be opposed by the sleuth, who possesses amazing mental powers that at least seem magical to the onlooker, though everything may be explained at the end. These powers allow the sleuth (who is often an unlikely or overlooked person, like the humble heroes of many fantasy stories) to solve the puzzle and right the balance of the world again.

That said, I’d like to see more tales that are fully both fantasies and mysteries. The only example I can bring to mind is Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy series. Can anyone tell me of any other works like that out there in the story multiverse?

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