While plodding through Ramsey Campbell’s The Darkest Part of the Woods, I took a break last night to read Poirot Loses a Client by Agatha Christie. Campbell is a capable writer, if a bit too fond of adjectives. His ability to evoke a mood is far beyond anything Christie ever achieved (or even tried).
And yet I’d rather read a 70-year-old chestnut about Hercule Poirot. It’s an enjoyable way to spend an evening. The Darkest Part of the Woods is not enjoyable in that way, not for me.
I read mysteries for pleasure, but because I’m a writer, I do think about the sources of the pleasure. Mysteries are satisfying for several reasons. First, the protagonist has a clear goal (unmasking the murderer), and takes vigorous action to achieve that goal. Second, the mystery plot (there’s really only one) is about the search for truth in the midst of confusion — always a good theme. Third, at the end of a mystery we can be pretty certain that virtue will be rewarded and evil trounced.
None of these factors is deployed as clearly in science fiction and fantasy. Often, the main characters are blundering around with no clear idea what they’re trying to achieve (if anything). Truth is not often a major factor in the plot — and if it is, it’s purely a coin toss whether truth will have been revealed at the end of the book. And while a happy ending of some sort is likely (else the publisher wouldn’t have bought the manuscript), the outcome is often somewhat muddled in a moral or emotional sense.
You could make a case that mysteries are very formulaic, while SF and fantasy are, oddly enough, more realistic with respect to their portrayal of human experience. I guess I get enough of human experience just blundering around in North America. When I read, I want something that speaks to how the world ought to be.