Monday, July 02, 2012

Paul H. Yarbrough on Why We Like Mysteries

Omnimystery News: Guest Author Post

We are pleased to welcome debut novelist Paul H. Yarbrough as our guest blogger today.

Paul's "Southern Novel" is Mississippi Cotton (WiDo Publishing, April 2011 paperback and ebook editions), in which an adventurous young boy and his cousins snoop around in a mystery that is better left to the grown ups.

Today Paul gives us his thoughts about why we like mysteries.

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Someone has posed the question as to why people are drawn to mystery stories. Let us see if we can figure it out. Possibly a redundant appellation, since anything that is fact isn't a story, it is nonfiction; that is to say, all mysteries are stories. This isn't nit-picking because, as facts are dull, theories are interesting. For example, when Einstein finally showed that E=mc² it became a fact that any freshman physics major could accept; not to mention any layman should he want to spend the time. However whether any given black hole could suck in any other black hole is a mystery (not yet a fact) and, for those who have the time, a great mental stimulation; therefore still a mystery. And certainly not dull.

But man doesn't necessarily require the arcane ranges of sub-atomic, particle-physics to satisfy an urge for mystery-solving. For many (including some scientific- doctorate-types) there are a multitude of stories involving science fiction, murder, spy, etc.

But the interest, as often as not, is not in the concealment, but in the handling of the solution. For example, in the old mystery T.V. series, Columbo, there was no ambiguity as to who the killer was. The interest was what clues would be found, and how would they be used. In Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason stories, there was never any doubt as to who-didn't-do-it. Readers certainly knew Mason's client didn't. The unknown was how Mason would prove it, while simultaneously demonstrating who-did-done-it. On the other hand, Ellery Queen stories always bring the readers (or viewers) along as a player in the solution of who-and-why-it-got-done.

For science fiction, try The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For spy stories, take a Tom Clancy reading trip.

Some of the most well-known writers of mystery have used the crutch of characters to add to, and build on the mystery of the narrative. We may solve the mystery but will often not understand or solve the mystery of the character's personality. Whether Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (forget trying to figure out Dr. Watson) or a litany of Poe's created literary brethren, the characters are eccentric and frequently impenetrable to us.

The powerful thrust of every mystery is revealed at the end of the story when, upon capturing all the previous secrets, and having bared all, we are satisfied; but only temporarily. The lust for more pulls us in. For, once we have found the answer, we seek another mystery. Michael Crichton's terrific science fiction novel, The Andromena Strain, was a great mystery, which when finally solved we are left with an epilogue that effectively says: Are you sure you know everything? It is mystery that ends without ending; a great story.

The world is full of its own mysteries; and therein are an infinite number of them. So why do we need fictitious mysteries when there are an abundant source of unsolved mysteries around us. The answer probably is for the same reason people go fishing. They don't need to fish for food. They don't even need to fish in order to eat fish. They do it because they enjoy it. It doesn't matter whether or not the mystery is true or not. They do it for the adventure. So is solving mysteries an adventure? Mostly, yes.

I think without mystery, without uncertainty, the conclusion is always the beginning. It is one thing for God to be the Alpha and the Omega; He understands all. So knowing everything is no mystery to Him, though I don't think he gets bored. But as mortals, we thrive for what is unrevealed: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." (Corinthians I, 2:9 KJV)

We are creatures of mystery, created in mystery and bred and cultured in mystery. Each time a mystery of life is unlocked, another reports for attention.

But have we figured out why we seek to solve them? Think about the following statement made by Socrates: "I know that I know nothing at all." Is there a mystery to be solved in what he said? The answer is no. If you disagree and want to solve it, knock yourself out. But I warn you, it is a paradox; a truly unsolvable mystery. The point is: It is a mystery why we are driven to solve mysteries. If we solved the one we would forever eliminate the other; then we have no mystery. And we have lost a great adventure. Anyway, that is what I think.

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Paul H. Yarbrough, born and reared in Jackson, Mississippi, now lives in Houston, Texas. He is working on an additional novel set in Mississippi, circa 1953-54, A Mississippi Whisper, and reworking a earlier unpublished novel set in 1952 around Shiloh, Tennessee, The Tennessee Walls. For more information about the author and his books, visit his website at or his blog, Southern Stories and Study.

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Mississippi Cotton by Paul H. Yarbrough Print and/or Kindle Edition

Barnes&Noble Print Edition and/or Nook Book

About Mississippi Cotton:

In 1951 the body of an unknown white man is found in the Mississippi river along the Mississippi Delta. Two black men discover it while fishing. A young boy, Jake Conner, visits his country cousins in the small Delta town of Cotton City and begins parallel journeys discovering the dead man’s identity and fate. Along the journey Jake befriends a stalwart black man recently back from the Korean War, who teaches him that Confederates were gray because they were merged in the black and white of Mississippi.

He learns of dark forces of the past, and with the camaraderie of his family, the acquaintance of a simple-minded sharecropper, and the eccentricities of a strange woman from the past, also gets a look into the future of the agrarian land of Mississippi.


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