The Mystery in the Machine
this essay first appeared in OmniMystery News in November 2014
I often think of a novel as a vehicle—a set of interworking parts lit by a spark that takes its readers on a journey. Sometimes the engine is a tragic event; sometimes it’s an error on the part of the main character; sometimes it’s a mystery to be solved.
In the genre of mystery, unexplained events—especially when they involve crime—can drive a plot forward as readers push on to discover who the perpetrator is and how the detective will bring the criminal into the open. Mystery writers must, of course, gather the right parts and fit them together so that the machine runs, and this can involve laying clues, foreshadowing, twisting the plot, and sending the main character down the wrong paths. All of these act as pistons and belts and batteries, giving life and energy to the story—urging it to its conclusion.
The engine of mystery often goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds—and this is exactly what readers of the genre seek. The plot speeds along, and readers breathlessly ride along as the events twist and turn, often screeching to a conclusion. Such books are great fun, and part of the enjoyment is predicting what will be discovered around the next bend. If the events are well-constructed, the destination is a surprise.
But what of the novelist whose “engine” is not an unsolved crime? Can there still be mystery in those machines?
In my first two historical novels, The Altarpiece and City of Ladies, I created a through-line of Tudor-era mystery: what happened to the missing altarpiece and why are people dying over it? Who is killing the former nuns living in the main character’s house? The resolution of these crimes is central to the structure of both, and I did try to give hints (sometimes rather difficult-to-miss hints) as I built my plots. I wanted the “reveal” to occur for the reader in the same way that it does for Catherine, my heroine—somewhat slowly at first, then progressively more undeniably and horrifying, at least to her.
The mysteries of my first two novels, however, were not my main focus. For me, the engine of these novels was character: the conflicts and contradictions that make up a human being and how people resolve their own tendencies to crime . . . and sin.
As I have been writing my third novel, The King’s Sisters, I’ve been thinking of crime as more internalized, less visible—the suffering we inflict on others in pursuit of our own goals and the lengths to which we will go in order to gain our ends. The “engine” is external conflict—events and persons who prevent Catherine from getting what she wants or believes she needs. Her desires are often in conflict with each other, and since she lives as a former nun under the “reformed” Henry VIII, she also clashes with (and almost crashes into) the laws of that increasingly tyrannical king.
So this book is not a “mystery.” Or is it? Vehicles are made of more than just their engines. The best journeys, for me, involve looking at the scenery and stopping along the way to learn about the landscape, the cities, the history, and the people in different places. Sometimes I prefer to turn off the car altogether and get out to breathe the unfamiliar air.
So what sort of vehicle am I building? As I was doing research for this latest novel, I discovered that the Tudor court, as Henry aged, became more and more dependent upon privately-paid spies and double agents for its information. This use of a network of spies became even more common in the courts of his daughters. I got interested in this, because, sadly, the political world still works through agents and double-agents. And what about the secrets we keep privately or tell on each other? Out of this information, I began to create a story.
In Tudor England, actions that we moderns might call “private” were often the purview of the king and the courts: whom one married, where one lived, and what clothing one wore in public were all restricted by law—and breaking one of these laws might make a private person a very public criminal.
I worked in characters and events that provide a glimpse into the workings of the Tudor court—and into human motivations. The “king’s man” who comes to settle the accounts of Anne of Cleves is a typical hanger-on, upwardly mobile socially and completely amoral. But he does seem to have the king’s permission. Is that the same thing as having justice on his side? And what exactly—or who?—is he looking for, anyway? An expensive ring seems to have gone missing. Who would have taken it and why?
Is it a mystery? Well, in part, yes. But mystery is not the engine. I came to think of mystery as not only a driving force but also a set of windows, mirrors, and GPS systems, showing side-tracks and tangents; they’re all part of the journey. I want readers, as the novel progresses, to look in the rearview and realize, as my characters do, that small occurrences are more significant than they seemed at first (“objects in this mirror are closer than they appear to be”), that the answers to these little mysteries change their lives—and implicate their own actions. The novel rushes to its end, the daily actions characters take and secrets they keep, thinking that these are just “personal,” have as great an impact on the people they love and hate than they will admit to themselves—and sometimes more of an impact than the political intrigues.
In The King’s Sisters, the “engine” is character in conflict. The spark may be Henry VIII, but the fire, the twists and turns, come from his subjects. We always return from trips, after all, with a fresh perspective on our homes and ourselves. Using internal mysteries to construct the machine of fiction can deepen that knowledge, driving readers not only to the “reveal” of events but also to a revelation of human character.