On Mysteries and the Status Quo

I’m a devoted listener to the podcast Writing Excuses — despite their claims to the contrary, they really are that smart — and found their most recent episode, on Middle Grade fiction, to be fascinating. (Defining Middle Grade is contentious, but loosely, it’s fiction for kids 9-12: think Charlotte’s Web, the first Harry Potter book, or the Hardy Boys)

In particular, they discussed the difference between young adult and middle-grade fiction in terms of how they deal with the status quo: Middle-grade fiction tends to focus on some danger or event with the resolution being a return to normalcy. The family is reunited, the adventuring child comes home again, the pig is saved, the bad guy is defeated and everything can go back the way it was.

Conversely, young adult fiction tends to be more interested in blowing apart the status quo, of achieving some revolution. The corrupt regime is toppled, the farm boy is crowned king, bacon is invented, the bad guy is defeated and nothing will ever be the same again.

I started thinking about how this applied to mystery fiction, and found that it’s actually a useful way to divide the genre (sort of) and to think about individual plots and their goals. You can do a rough split in this way between the cozy intellectual Golden-Age mysteries with genteel consulting detectives and the gritty noir-style thrillers with hard-boiled PIs. In both cases, there is usually a crime being solved, but the attitude and payoff are different. The status quo preservers tend to treat the crime as an aberration to be corrected, an offense against the natural order of things; the inciting incident is “something bad has happened.” The payoff is a return to some semblance of normality, with the innocent vindicated and the guilty punished, and generally a sense of relief and satisfaction. The villains are ordinary-seeming people, even heroic people, who have become corrupted and so need to be removed. The status quo upheavers treat the crime as the natural outcome from a corrupt system; the inciting incident is sometimes “this terrible situation is brought to my attention” but usually “enough is enough!”. The payoff is in seeing a change in the system portrayed, a sense of justice done (legal, moral, and/or social), and a sense of hope. The proximate villains might be similar to the other stories, but in the background there are shadowy criminal organizations, corrupt governments, pervasive inequity, and oppression.

As an example of the former form, consider Sherlock Holmes, who is all about maintaining the status quo. He is for the most part uncritical of the social and legal order (indeed, his brother “is” the British Empire in a very real sense, we’re told). A Sherlock Holmes adventure starts with a disruption or a strangeness, and ends in explaining it. Any irrevocable changes to the status quo (notably, a death or two) are accomplished by the villains. Holmes may scold the Bohemian king (or Poirot the Middle Eastern prince) but wouldn’t dream of exposing him. Even where the goal of the protagonist is an explicit change in the world — such as the disruption of Prof. Moriarty’s criminal empire — the structure of the story revolves around thwarting a particular plot (The Valley of Fear and others), or being assaulted by Moriarty and prevailing at cost (The Final Problem). Moriarty’s empire is enough of the status quo that the campaign to uproot it just doesn’t fit the format of a Sherlock Holmes Story. Other examples in this vein include the more cerebral and episodic mysteries: Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe, say, or TV shows like Columbo, Monk, or Castle.

As an example of the latter form, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels nearly always involve his detective upending some ingrained injustice, big or small. The world is imperfect, and people feel powerless to do anything about it, or moneyed interests are keen on keeping things this way. Something stinks, and the hero’s going to do something about it — maybe only something small, maybe only helping this one person — but something will be done to make the world stink a little less. The quintessential Spenser novel starts with a little guy getting crushed in the wheels, and Spenser (the wiseass, the guy who doesn’t like following orders, the guy whose friends in high places are secret disgusted with the status quo) comes in and blows the whole thing open. He doesn’t always do much, and he occasionally has to violate principles, but at the end the world is a slightly better place than it was before. Even in his ensemble-oriented books, like A Catskill Eagle, the personal upheaval that represents the wrong in Spenser’s world happens offstage and long enough before to have become accepted enough to be the established state of the world: he’s still rebelling, not reacting. Or, to use one of the founding documents of the genre, consider Hammett’s Red Harvest, where all the authorities in a town are so corrupt that the place is called “Poisonville” and the protagonist is so disgusted that he takes the whole damn thing down. The structure of a story in this vein involves a lot of world-building, with the character doing a lot of learning about the world rather than about the crime. The Harry Dresden books (for that matter, a lot of urban fantasy in the mystery vein) follow this form.

There are important complications to this division. One of the grittiest subgenres of crime novel is that of the serial killer. In a sense, these are all about quashing a scary threat to everyday life, and the minor themes tend to be all about how lives are disrupted and people are too scared to go about their normal routines. Thinking about plots in terms of their relation to the status quo, the serial killer detection subgenre seems to be further divided in two: a back-to-normality sub-sub-genre where a new serial killer is known (and leaves a calling card, for example) and the population live in fear; and an upheaval sub-sub-genre where so-called everyday deaths are actually the work of one already-established villain, and the complacent authorities must be woken up. One intriguing set of stories that I’m having a hard time classifying is certain more modern interpretations of Jack the Ripper as a member of the aristocracy. That (or certain spy stories) is the closest I can come to finding of a true fusion between the two forms: I feel like the protagonists are trying to uphold and restore the status quo by the surgical removal of one small element of it.

Another important complication is the ongoing series. Very often, especially in television, a series of mysteries will have episodes with the goal of returning to the status quo, and an overall arc of needing to overthrow some narrow aspect of it. Castle does this in two ways: more traditionally, of course, is the shadowy conspiracy behind Beckett’s mother’s murder. But also (and I owe the Writing Excuses folks for this insight; I think Mary Robinette Kowal in particular) the romance arc is also an upheaval of the status quo! My current favorite example, though, one I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about lately, is the ongoing series Hannibal. In it Hannibal Lecter is suitably entrenched to possibly be considered part of the establishment (and acts to entrench himself further), and thus the resolution to the overall series arc must needs be a major upheaval — and as you would expect when each episode is a move toward the status quo, and the status quo is rotten, each of Will Graham’s pyrrhic triumphs further entrenches Dr. Lecter.

In this vein, I can think of a number of examples in the mystery/crime genre where the episodes are status quo-seeking and the overall arc is disruptive, but I’m having trouble thinking of the reverse. Straying outside the genre, there’s Band of Brothers, which could be seen as individual episodes involving dislodging Nazis, with the overall goal of getting home to a normal life. But that’s a stretch, I think.

When the overall plot is about returning to or disrupting the status quo, the sub-plots can independently support that with a similar goal. For example, in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, there are very often two parallel plots: 1) Wooster’s chum gets himself into a pickle and needs to be extricated, and 2) Wooster himself has sparked discord between himself and Jeeves vis some sartorial perversion. Such a scene or subplot can also be a thematic clue: The beginning of Rex Stout’s Gambit shows Nero Wolfe doing something he ordinarily would abhor, burning a book, because it has committed crimes. Like solving a murder, it’s an act of justice, and presages him solving the mystery of the story by doing something he ordinarily would also abhor, compromising a dinner (though not with himself at the table, which would be a bridge too far).

On the other hand, using a subplot with the opposite goal can mix things up a bit. Normalcy-seeking mysteries can be a bit of a downer at the ending (after all, murders can’t be undone) and having a forward-looking subplot often entails upending some part of the status quo — remember earlier, that often such plots end on a hopeful note. Romance plots or friendship plots can add an optimistic element at the end, a sense that the overall effort was good for more than just justice. With upheaval mysteries, efforts against shadowy conspiracies often don’t result in a total upheaval, only a small success and a minor respite; actually solving a crime (even if it turns out to only be the catalyst for other efforts) can provide some sense of finality and resolution.

This brings us to the end, and the role of the status quo frequently determines when the story ends. If the story is seeking a return to normalcy, the story is done when the crime is solved. There might be some aspect of the case still to explain (or subplots to be wrapped up) but in general things proceed very quickly from the moment the culprit is fingered. I feel that noir and hard-boiled stories, by contrast, tend to have more meditative endings, going on for pages or even chapters after any crimes are solved.

So what do you all think?

3 thoughts on “On Mysteries and the Status Quo

  1. Band of Brothers, which could be seen as individual episodes involving dislodging Nazis, with the overall goal of getting home to a normal life.

    On reflection, The Odyssey is a better example. Odysseus pretty much blows up everything he comes across on his way home. But it’s still not a mystery.

  2. Great analysis.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on endings. The Big Sleep, I seem to remember, ended within a page or two of the solution, while many modern cozies will often have a full chapter to show that life is back to normal and maybe to hint at future developments — because even in a stable environment, it’s an active rather than passive balance: people get older, people fall in and out of love, children are born, life goes on.

    1. I’ve been mulling this over since your post, and I think you’re right. I had been thinking chiefly of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but flipping through some Agatha Christie and PD James, I realized that there is a great deal of time spent tying up romantic arcs and showing the chief characters rebuilding their lives.

      As for the noir mysteries, I don’t recall which examples I had in mind (probably Parker’s Spenser novels); it’s been a while since I’ve read many of those, so I’ll have to rethink that as well once I’ve had the chance.


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