I first considered the question of attempting to solve mysteries as I read after loaning a book to a friend. I raved about it—in fact, I’ve loaned that book at least three times now—but she found it just okay, partly because she figured out the whodunit halfway through. “There was only one suspect!” she said.
And she was right, but I got so wrapped up in the story that I hadn’t been trying to solve the mystery, and moreover, I realized that I never do. I let a story wash over me wave by wave, and I don’t try to jump too far ahead. Where did this tendency originate? Time to explore my mystery-loving roots.
Mysteries Embedded in My Literary-DNA
I was getting ready to brag about reading a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, but the longer I think on it, I realize that I have to admit that my first mysteries were … Scooby-Doo. Yeah. Three cheers for Saturday morning cartoons. Years later, I heard that every unmasked baddie turned out to be the second non-regular character introduced per epidsode. Formulaic, predictable, easy.
Then came Sherlock, in the form of a Reader’s Digest Condensed book. These mysteries depended wholly on arcane bits of information, 98% of which I didn’t know. I didn’t have a hope of solving a mystery that involved knowing the native home of pet snakes or when and to whom certain military decoration swords were issued.
So there encoded in my early mystery consumption, we find formulas and inability to locate all the pieces. The entertainment value came from watching the sleuths work and not from exercising my own noodle. Or maybe I’m just lazy.
The Difference Between a Constructed Mystery and a Found Mystery
There’s a difference, I think, between the literary mysteries I read and the genealogical mysteries I find. When I pick up a book, I know the author built that story out of a known set of parts. No matter how twisty or shocking the plot points, like a Frankenstein monster all the required components will be joined together: the set-up (including both the question and the stakes involved), clues (both overt and covert), probably at least one red-herring (the lack of which caused my friend disappointment in the book I loaned her), and at last the conclusion (possible startling but inarguably logical). By setting down the story, the author has made a promise to provide both the question and the answer.
A genealogical mystery needs only one of these pieces and comes with no guarantees. Family stories may prompt the questions we would ask, if only we could. Perhaps history provides us with stakes, a Gold Rush or a Black Tuesday. Clues could be that strange old photo or the way Grandpa would never talk about the war. Red herrings appear in our ancestors lies, or our wrong assumptions about why they did things a certain way. And conclusions? Well, we certainly know a lot about how it ended up—after all, here we are—but life doesn’t promise us logic all the time. Sometimes, or even most times, things just are, and that’s it. There may not be a tight-fitting ending to every true-life story.
If It’s Going To Be, It’s Up To Me
That essential difference between fiction and fact fully accounts for my different approaches to fictional mysteries vs. historical ones. In a book, the author has already done the heavy lifting. I can sit back and enjoy. With my family tree, there is no formula, and the work hasn’t been done for me. I know how to find the pieces (usually) if they exist to be found, and the reward is in the search itself. Sometimes, I’ll find the answer.
That’s good enough for me.
Question for You
If you read mysteries, do you try to solve them? Are you usually right? Leave a comment!
(PS-Sorry so late! It’s still Tuesday in a few more time zones, if not my own …)