Since the creation of the printing press brought the art of fiction to a mass audience, there has been an ongoing discussion on the nebulous differences between Literature and those writings understood to be entertainment.
As the debate would have it, Literature—pronounced with a capital L, no doubt by a bespectacled intellectual clad in a leather-elbowed tweed jacket—is otherwise referred to as “serious” fiction. Literature, this academic would have us believe, must be an exploration of the intricacies of the human condition. Literature is important. Literature makes you a better person. Literature changes the world.
entertainment, in stark contrast, is a low-brow, blue-collar term, always pronounced with a lowercase e (very likely in comic sans font). When it is spoken of (and only rarely), it is by individuals who are, shall we say, more “non-discriminatory” and less “particular” in their choice of reading materials.
entertainment, in blunt contrast to Literature, is shallow. entertainment is slight. entertainment dulls the senses and fogs the mind. entertainment leads to reality television.
This is, of course, spectacularly ridiculous (both the argument itself and the lengths to which I’ve already gone to belittle it). All literature is entertainment, whether the author intends it to be or not. It’s up to the reader to make the ultimate verdict on its quality and success at being so. And to imply that entertainment offers little to no insight into “the human condition” is preposterous at best. I’ll hazard that Raymond Chandler’s classic 1953 work The Long Goodbye—a detective novel that, over time, has been reluctantly allowed to grace the realm of Literature, although at the time it was viewed as existing at a level even lower than entertainment, that of pulp—has as much, if not more, to say about humanity than most highbrow Pulitzer/ Booker/ Giller Award-winning novels.
And says it in a vastly more entertaining manner.
And yet the squabble continues, kept alive through the most subliminal of techniques; any bookstore that classifies its wares under the shared heading of “Literature and Fiction” has declared its fealty to the status quo. And the additional demarcation of the art of fiction into what is termed “genre”—your fantasies, your romances, your scientific fictions, your numerous other “non-literary” subsets—only contributes to the befuddlement.
One such boundary has been erected between Literature and the genre known as mystery. Such deliberate differentiation between the two is arguably the most unfair of divisions, as—and I’m making a vastly uncalculated leap of logic here—all literature is, in essence, mystery.
Mystery is (to slightly co-opt a phrase from seven paragraphs ago) inherent to the human condition. It is hardly the sole domain of world-weary shamuses and inquisitive amateur detectives and dogged police officers sworn to serve and protect (as with Bob Kroll’s recent, very fine Halifax police thriller The Hell of It All).
Mystery is a driving force of every novel, every short story, every poem. Mystery, in its most basic form, is not knowing what happens next. Which, I’ll argue, is a prime motivator for a reader’s continued perusal of any story, mysterious or other. It’s also a prime motivator for getting out of bed in the morning, if only to answer the burning question of “What’s for breakfast?”
Come to think of it, mystery is the human condition.
Naturally, as a category of fiction, there are certain tenets to the classic mystery novel that may not be perceptibly found elsewhere. Yet, while advocates of Literature may hold their nose at the very idea of a clue-laden fiction being in any way literary, the co-opting of mystery’s many classic elements is a tried-and-true practice. Authors may attempt to disguise said elements through stylistic choices and comparatively ambitious prose, but you cannot disguise the fact that, without an element of mystery, most (if not all) classic Literature would be deadening.
Charlotte Brontë may have envisioned Jane Eyre as a novel of social criticism, but it’s the secret tenant of Thornfield Hall that people remember. F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was his treatise on the soul-rending values of the Roaring Twenties, but it’s the enigma of Gatsby’s past that haunts the reader once the last page has been read. It’s almost as if authors yearn to write a mystery, yet fear being pigeonholed within the genre, forever thus confined to the relative isolation of bookstore Mystery shelves. Almost.
Take, for a far more recent example, Donna Morrissey’s 2016 novel The Fortunate Brother. The third in a trilogy (after Sylvanus Now and What They Wanted), it continues down the path set by its precursors, being an intricate and bracingly realistic examination of the trials and tribulations of the Now family. Morrissey’s novel is as much a portrayal of small-town Newfoundland life as it is a family drama, set in a sadly all-too-identifiable landscape where the young abandon the province for Alberta as soon as feasible, and where everybody “knew your dead like they knew their own.”
The series as a whole would likely never be classified under the rubric of mystery, yet The Fortunate Brother was awarded not only the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award (confirming its literary bona fides), but also the Arthur Ellis Award for Excellence in Crime Writing (placing it firmly within the mystery genre). How could a single novel achieve two such ostensibly disparate distinctions?
Despite its outward appearance as a location-specific family drama, The Fortunate Brother (intentionally or not) follows a template very similar to those of classic mysteries. Very early on, a secondary character turns up dead, and a series of events and happenstance eventually places the blame on Kyle Now, the oldest surviving Now son. Playing the amateur detective (although never noted as such), Kyle begins to investigate the night in question, digging into the alibis of others and working to keep suspicion away from himself and his father Sylvanus.
Like her previous novels, Morrissey’s scenario is rife with socio-political commentary and her comprehension of the vagaries of human nature, the social interplay of her characters, they all combine to bring this fictional Newfoundland to living, breathing life (as only the best of literature is capable). But with observations such as “he could harbour such secrets from himself, but not from those they hurt the most,” it’s clear that the death and the ambiguity surrounding it drive the narrative down the path of mystery.
Novels need not follow the stereotypical mystery storyline (setup, mystery itself, solution, conclusion) to employ elements of such to their own ends. Witness how four more Atlantic Canadian authors spin out similar scenarios—missing and/or deceased family members, to be exact—with markedly different results, yet all circling the genre of mystery.
In The Only Café, former journalist Linden MacIntyre (The Bishop’s Man) juxtaposes the present-day story of Cyril Cormier, a young man beginning a career in journalism, with the history of his father Pierre, a Lebanese refugee. Five years after Pierre mysteriously vanishes, Cyril fully takes to his role as journalist (or, in other words, amateur detective), and MacIntyre’s scenario enlarges exponentially to encompass Pierre’s shady associates, underhanded business dealing and, finally, the 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon.
Rather than employing a direct retelling of Pierre’s story, MacIntyre parcels out the enigma of Pierre’s past throughout Cyril’s search for the truth. In so doing, the author plays with a central conceit of mystery novels, that of solving a crime to everyone’s satisfaction.
“We waste a lot of precious time on abstractions,” notes Cyril’s friend Nader, “like The Truth.” Unlike the cozy armchair mysteries of Agatha Christie—where everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow by story’s end—The Only Café argues that not all mysteries will be solved, and perhaps that’s for the best. MacIntrye’s characters insist that truth is a fiction, or at best an amorphous reality, and that “the only way to know what happens is to be a part of it.”
“You live with somebody for years,” Cyril’s mother Aggie comments during his search for answers. “You think you’re sharing everything. Then one day you realize you really didn’t know that other person. And it dawns on you, that you only know what another person wants you to know.”
This, MacIntyre hints, may be life’s one true unsolvable mystery.
Similarly, the plot of Wayne Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light circles around a mysterious (there’s that word again!) parental disappearance, of both father and mother this time. In 1936, 14-year-old Ned Vatcher’s parents left their house one morning while Ned was away at school and were never heard from again. Their disappearance, among many other events, drives Ned through the decades to eventually become a successful media baron, like a Newfoundland Citizen Kane.
First Snow is, like The Fortunate Brother, the third in a trilogy of Newfoundland novels (after The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and The Custodian of Paradise), all tied together through Johnston’s popular character of the boozing journalist Sheilagh Fielding. The novels are rich in geographical and historical detail, to the point where Newfoundland itself is as important a character as the protagonists.
Yet, while the novel’s setting, characters, style and themes are far from those of a traditional mystery novel, Ned’s obsession with the disappearance overwhelmingly becomes the defining event of his life and thrusts the narrative headlong into genre territory. Despite its historical trappings, there is a heady whiff of dark detective noir in sentences such as, “I was an explorer who had fashioned an obsession that was solely mine. I had no rivals, no competitors. I was in quest of the heart of no one’s darkness but my own.”
Like MacIntyre and Morrissey, Johnston understands that the notion of mystery encompasses far more than a search for clues. Mystery can be integral to our sense of self; it is a state of mind that drives us ever forward, striving to reveal that elusive something we feel will make us somehow whole.
As Ned laments, “I felt I had to find them as if nothing but doing so would save me. I believed that even if I found out they had forsaken me, I could deal with it. I would, at last, understand.”
Ned’s words resonate because, being human, we readers naturally crave a sense of resolution. We yearn for answers, always in ample supply within the safe confines of a mystery novel, yet tragically lacking in reality.
This is a large part of the basic appeal of mystery stories, this guarantee of a solution. The belief that there are answers to our questions, if only we dig hard enough. That there is order to be found in the chaos. That the riddle shall be solved and the guilty punished.
Perhaps this, then, is the elusive distinction between mystery and Literature; a mystery novel reassures us that the world conforms to a clear order, while Literature insists that closure is a myth on the level of a Sasquatch riding a unicorn.
Karen Smythe’s novel This Side of Sad pushes at this notion as its protagonist, Maslan, tasks herself with solving the unsolvable. Following the ambiguous nature of her husband James’s death—wasit accident, or suicide?—a devastated Maslan finds herself shattered to the point of inaction. “I’ve been widowed,” she says, automatically rebelling against the term. “That sounds so selfish, doesn’t it? As if James’s death was an act of violence against me.”
Faced with a future bereft of answers, Maslan forces herself to turn inward, detailing the moments of her life that led to the fateful day. She examines the minutiae of her history, attempting to discern the cracks between memory and fact; “[E]very bit of me has to be dissected, laid bare, exposed to the elements. There is no other way to move forward, no restart button or blueprint to follow, no script to tell me what to say or how to be.”
Of the novels discussed here, Smythe’s debut is arguably furthest away in structure from a mystery novel. There are no external forces acting on her or her loved ones. There is no act of wrongdoing that may be attributed to an outside party. There is only a simple fact, repeated by Morrissey, Johnston and MacIntyre before her: that “truth” is at best a theory we construct to protect ourselves, to help us make sense of the senseless, to find purpose in the purposeless. It is how we face this possibility of the unresolvable and move past it that ultimately defines us.
Finally, sometimes the best thing an author can do is accept that a story is indeed a mystery, but understand that the genre does not have to be viewed as a limitation. Kris Bertin—recent winner of the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for his collection Bad Things Happen—fully embraces the tropes of the genre while at the same time subverting the reader’s expectations throughout, in his masterfully weird The Case of the Missing Men. A graphic novel (vividly illustrated by Alexander Forbes), the story outwardly resembles a classic Young Adult mystery a la Nancy Drew, following as it does the adventures of an arguably-too-curious teenage girl. Acting as the de facto leader of a team of high school student detectives (closely resembling Scooby-Doo’s mystery team sans talking Great Dane), the group discovers themselves embroiled within a true mystery as they try to solve, like the title screams, the case of the missing men.
Where the previous authors have employed mystery tropes to outwardly straightforward tales, Bertin and Forbes gleefully manhandle the archetypal form of the mystery novel to their own ends, wickedly twisting the expected into something altogether other. Much of the dialogue is deceptively simple, echoing the exposition-heavy method of Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys novels (“This whole thing started cause I saw a weird guy. Well guess what? I saw another one! And he was even weirder!”). The minimalism of the dialogue is a perfect match to Forbes’s stark pen-and-ink drawings, evoking the sensibilities of classic noir and horror films. The whole story resembles the cinematic works of David Lynch, wherein a clean-cut façade masks an underbelly of seething, incomprehensible evil.
Bertin delivers a story that is at once a stereotypical mystery and a dissection of what we expect a mystery to be. While there is indeed a resolution, it is ambiguous, open-ended; a conclusion only life (and, apparently, Literature) allows.
It’s far from simple, this obscure partition that delineates (for some) the difference between entertainment and Literature. Perhaps it would be more correct to classify books as good and bad, but that’s also a matter of subjectivity. Or perhaps we could do away with differentiation altogether and agree that literature is as open-ended a concept as truth itself.