Do You Try To Solve the Mystery?


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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 …)

14 Replies to “Do You Try To Solve the Mystery?”

  1. I like reading mysteries, and I definitely try to solve them. I usually do figure them out because I have read so many. The same goes for watching mysteries. My husband and I are slowly working our way through Midsomer Murders. The one we watched this weekend I knew who did it and why before the reveal. I love trying to figure them out before the telling.

    1. Fun! I can only think of one that I figured out, and my prevailing feeling was disappointment. The book had other problems, but the only reason I kept reading was to see if the author pulled off a surprise. And… she didn’t. I think I must be strange though, that I like mysteries and don’t try to solve them… I haven’t heard of Midsomer Murders. I’ll look them up.

    2. How do you solve them? My wife and I watch this show and she beats me every time. Just once I’d like to solve one before she does, only she’s so good at it. The last straw was the other night when she identified the murderer just by the title of the episode! Help!

    1. My favorite that I remember was “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” And of course, I love-love-love the recent films. I do think the main attraction is in watching Sherlock work… 🙂

      1. I think the hound of Baskerville will always be my favourite i think I liked it because it was that bit longer. Also I agree the movies are brilliant. Have you seen Sherlock the BBC series? It’s set in modern day London and its also fantastic if you haven’t you should take a look!

    1. I definitely like a good twist at the end. The draft title for this post was “I don’t try to solve the mystery (but maybe I’m weird).” I think my suspicion has been confirmed! 😉

  2. I love Sherlock Holmes too. Conan Doyle borrowed the main characters, Sherlock and Watson, from one of Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories, “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” When I was a child, I watched Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. Years later, I watched the PBS series starring Jeremy Brett. He was my favorite Sherlock. I was so sad to hear that he passed away in his 50s.

    I’ve seen “Midsomer Murders” too, but I liked “Inspector Morse,” a British series written by Colin Dexter better. I always had trouble following the thread in “Inspector Morse” episodes, but the acting so was good and the humor so delicious that I didn’t care. And, yes, there was always a twist at the end–a character I’d forgotten about that did the dirty deed.

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