When Frank Kersnowski
first proposed this volume, I wasn’t so sure it would work, but the
more we talked the more I became convinced that a connection between
Trickster and mystery fiction is very germane.
First of all, Trickster is all about reading signs – some
times correctly, some times incorrectly, but always with a reading
that tests the categories of experience. What else could so clearly
describe the detective. From
Poe and Doyle to Burke and Paresky, the detector (I change the term
just to deflect and underscore the more lurid and garish nature of
detective fiction) is a reader of signs, and as a conceit of the
author, the reading clearly one that tests the limits of perception,
the categories of social and cultural boundaries, and the capacities
of the reader. That is
trickster per se – sometimes joking, sometimes cynical, sometimes
cunning, sometimes dangerous, but always revealing to his
interlocutors insights they may have avoided, neglected or ignored.
Once you walk with Trickster and play the mystery game, your
comfort zone has changed and your look at your fellow human beings and
yourself is not quite the same.
In the second place,
mysteries are journeys both for the characters, the audience and the
genre. As Jacque Barzun has written in “The Novel Turns Tale”
The fact is that from the outset detection has been
written for and by highbrows. The genre has been the preserve of the
intellectual and the cultured and (despite what people say) not so
much for relaxation as for the stimulation, in a different setting, of
the same critical and imaginative powers that these persons display in
their vocations. Some highly intelligent people have, of course, never
felt the pleasure afforded by detective fiction, but exceptions do not
alter the generality. Historically, the theme of detection has aroused
the imagination of writers from Voltaire, Balzac, Cooper and Poe to
Dickens, Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Henry James, Yeats, Eliot, and C. Day
Lewis. Whatever it is, the detective story is not an idiot’s
So the mystery
narrative, in all of its forms, is by definition a study of the
unknown. From simple
whodunits to the complex spy narrative, from peak-a-boo pot boilers to
sophisticated film noir, from thrillers to metaphysical horror, from
deceptive rhetoric to inspirational dogma, the mystery narrative
recognizes the loss of the human condition, sometimes dwells on the
misery of humanity, and seeks to modulate and defang the horrific
surprise that constitutes the semiotic life of we verbal creatures.
Thirdly, any number of
scholars, writers, and pundits have commented on the mystery
narrative; they have critiqued it, deconstructed it, condemned it,
written it and loved it. Ever
since Poe and the blossoming of print culture, the dance of
information, the play of perspective, and the puzzle of discovery has
fascinated those of us trying to walk in the new land of new media.
When we lost semiotic innocence, we gained the mystery
narrative and it has been with us ever since mirroring our handling of
information as guide, comforter, or tempter, reminding us that we too
can be gods – at oh so small a price! We
find that the mystery articulates misery.
As Conan Doyle, said, “When
you eliminate all that is impossible, whatever is left, no matter
how improbable must be the truth!” or to give it a cruel paraphrase
“whatever is left, no matter how unpleasant or horrific must be
true.” In short, there
is always an implicit, and/or explicit, dark side to the journey.
The dectector, the detected, or the society is held to a light
that shows its unseemly side. Violence,
greed, betrayal, deception, misdirection, and murder most foul are
always the reminder of Trickster’s more rapacious grin at our
discomfitures with life and how we live it.
Finally, the mystery
narrative plays the edges of the mysterium whether it be conspiracy
theories of satanic overlords, black helicopters, or financial cabals.
It is an ultimate believer’s or worrier’s trap.
Like with all of Trickster’s questions that we find answers
for, we sing like the Creature’s Bride in Young
Frankenstein, “O Sweet Mystery of Life, I think I have found
you.” Or like Jack
Horner we return to our corners with our prized plums smirking at how
bright we are and forgetting that Trickster is just waiting for
another question about life at another time.
We could like Job and Wittgenstein, just say wherein we cannot
speak we must be silent, but tongue wagging creature that we are,
silence is not really golden at all. Thus, the detector is always a
trickster living in the land of mystery, mirroring the structures of
society, discovering the dark of the unknown or the unthinkable,
playing at the boundaries of culture, and articulating the shifting
shapes of the informational world.
Whether it is a game, a riddle, a puzzle, a quandary, or a
quagmire, the detector exemplifies the process of discovery.
A study in habit, logic, induction, deduction, and abduction,
the detector is data processing and hypothesizing in its most
compelling and most human form. It
can be cheap, tawdry, and misdirecting. It can be intellectual,
scientific, and philosophical. It is part magic, part bluff, and part
manipulation, but it is central to human knowing and living.
the game is afoot!