On Literature and Mystery: An Essay by Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil’s Territory, a collection of stories available this week from Dzanc Books. His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, The Southern Review, Surreal South, and Plots with Guns. A native of Florida, he now lives in Ohio, where he teaches writing and literature at the University of Toledo.

I did not set out to be a mystery

writer or a crime writer, nor am I sure I am one now. That’s not to

say that I don’t admire the genres, because I do. If forced to trade,

I’ll take one Dennis Lehane, one Richard Price, one George Pelecanos,

one James M. Cain, one Big Jim Thompson or Raymond Chandler or Dashiell

Hammett—any one of them, any day—over any ten “literary” writers.

I mean it. Because all of these writers do all of the things to which

literature ought to aspire—vivid evocation of character, an intelligent

reckoning with thematic material that matters, an acquaintance with

the music language can make—while, at the same time, giving us a sock-in-the-gut

story in a time and place of consequence. 

(I also ought to mention, while

we’re speaking of it, that contemporary crime and mystery writers

are lately doing another thing that literature used to do more often,

which is to work out intractable social problems on a big canvas and

consider the workings of groups and systems as worthy as the individual

of their attentions. I might argue, in fact, that the closest thing

we have to Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Dos Passos these days is HBO’s

The Wire, a television show helmed by nonfiction crime writer David

Simon, with episodes penned by Lehane, Price, and Pelecanos. But that’s

an argument for another day, another essay.)

But, hey, I’m no David Simon,
I’m no Richard Price, I’m no Dennis Lehane. All I’ve been trying
to do for the last five years is write some modest stories about people
not unlike people I know and knew in my childhood, which is to say working
class people from Palm Beach County, Florida, whose backgrounds are
long on Christian fundamentalism and short in patience for intellectual
bric-a-brac. I’ve wanted to go deep into their inner lives at the
moments in which fate and circumstance have intervened. And I’ve tried
to be brave enough to choose the most fateful of intersections. So I’ve
written about the young man who gets caught up in the spate of bum bashing
that swept the local high school in the middle-1980’s, and culminated
in the death of an Ojibwe Indian under an Interstate 95 overpass. And
about the fifth grade schoolteacher, the one-time Cold War hero who
swam the frigid Spree River three times under cover of night, each time
with an elderly relative on her back, so she could make her way to West
Palm Beach, Florida, and “ruin the lives of fifth grade boys.”

What I started to find, as
I stretched out into this material, is that each of us has something
that keeps us up at night, some fundamental mystery of our own lives
that won’t resolve itself, and which we can’t, despite our best
efforts and intentions, make sense of, or shake. And also, in many cases,
there is some act of violence, external or psychological or both, that
is at the core of these mysteries. 

I have written many times about
my grandfather, a good man for all my childhood, and a good man made
from the ashes of a violent, bitter alcoholic who spent the years of
his prime terrorizing his wife and children in various ways. My fondest
memories of him revolve around the days I feigned illness so I could
spend the day with him in his trailer instead of at school, and we would
watch war movies, and, at the end of the day, walk the back alleys with
wooden sticks (to stave off the Dobermans that ran wild) and buy some
candy from the convenience store at the other end. I remember, too,
how when he died, his wife, my grandmother, didn’t want him to have
his false teeth, because she knew he would use them to flirt with the
VA hospital nurses.

It is easy to write about such
a man, but harder to write about the kind of woman who would stay with
him steadfastly through the bad and violent years and then spend the
good years making him pay for all he had put her through in her youth.
My inability to write a character like my grandmother was, in effect,
a failure of empathy, and one I meant to address by writing an alternative
history for her, one in which her life’s great trauma came in childhood
rather than adulthood, and in which her good years were spent with a
man who loved and protected her.

I worked all of this out by
way of a self-consciously literary tale told in multiple points of view,
about a senile woman who dies in a bathtub, thinking that it is her
cousin, the escaped rapist-murderer of her childhood, who has returned
to bathe her in her dotage, rather than her son, a Baptist minister
who has been delegated the duty because his wife, the primary caregiver,
is out on an errand. I called it “A Day Meant to Do Less,” and I
suspected it would never be published, because it was a 71-page story
that began in ended in a bathtub and covered a span of over fifty years
in a nonlinear chronology.

Imagine, then, my surprise,
when the Gettysburg Review called to say that they’d like to publish
it. And, a year and a half later, imagine my greater surprise when Otto
Penzler, dean of the American mystery writing community, wrote to say
that he and George Pelecanos had chosen it for Best American Mystery
Stories 2008. (What would I have said if he had called instead of written?
“This is a mystery story?”)

In the aftermath, I have published
several mystery stories, in my book In the Devil’s Territory (out
this week!), and in pleasingly tawdry places like Plots with Guns. I’ve
done murder, Stockholm Syndrome, and extortion. I’m working on two
novels, one of which wraps itself around a kidnapping, and the other
beginning with a race riot and ending with the bombing of an abortion
clinic. Along the way, I’ve not really changed my method much from
when I thought of myself as more of a literary writer. Instead, I’ve
come to think of literary writing as, fundamentally, an exercise in
plumbing the mysteries of human existence, character by character, and
turning them outward and outward, so that, by story’s end, we’re
all of us implicated.

Might I close with a digression,
a list of mystery stories that belong in the literary canon, and a list
of canonical works of literature that are, at their core, mysteries?
If it matters, I’ll let you decide which is which:

American Pastoral, by Philip

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray

As I Lay Dying, by William

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott

The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge

The Bright Forever, by Lee

In the Lake of the Woods, by
Tim O’Brien


The Postman Always Rings Twice,
by James M. Cain

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond

The Night Gardener, by George

Lush Life, by Richard Price

Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell

The Black Dahlia, by James

Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard