Essay About Mysteries and Mystery Writing
In my Bible, it only runs 377 words. That would hardly fill a page in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I’m talking about one of history’s most celebrated crimes, the Cain Murder Case, the earliest recorded police procedural capital investigation. The earlier Case of the Stolen Apple involved only disobedience and petty theft. This is, to be sure a felony under the Divine Criminal Code, as revealed in the Book of Genesis. But while God was, you should pardon the expression, pretty goldurn wroth at Adam and Eve over the purloined malus pumila fruit, I don’t think anybody would seriously suggest that swiping a Red Delicious out of the Old Man’s orchard can stand up to killing your brother for impact.
The crime and disposition report on the Cain case is a model of succinctness. The author tells us that, “The man knew his wife, Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.'” In short order, Abel arrives, both kids grow up, young Abel decides to raise sheep for his shekels and Cain goes into the old planting-and-harvesting racket.
After a while both fellers make offerings to the Lord, who likes Abel’s tribute (“the firstling of his flock, the fat portions”) but not Cain’s (“the fruit of the ground”). Cain gets peeved over this and takes his little bro’ for what may be history’s first recorded “ride.”
“Let us go out to the field,” Cain sezeth to Abel. What follows–I quote from the actual crime report, aka The Book of Genesis:
And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.
Obviously, God is lurking somewhere around and sees this happen. He doesn’t tell us why He didn’t intervene, as a good citizen really ought to, especially one who is Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Benevolent, as God is reputed to be. Instead, the Old Guy rants a pretty harsh rant at Cain: “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
All of this without offering Cain a chance to cross-examine witnesses, challenge the DNA of that blood, or make much of a defense at all. Good gosh, I’ll bet a nickel that Robert Shapiro, Gerald Uhlman, Barry Scheck, F. Lee Bailey or Johnny Cochran would have gotten Cain off in a flash. I really think the poor guy has grounds for appeal, at least, on the basis of inadequate representation. (Actually, none at all–and that’s about as inadequate as you can get.)
God says that henceforth Cain’s crops will be lousy and he’ll wind up homeless. At least it wasn’t a death penalty. In fact, Cain tells the Lord that he’s worried about vigilantes lynching him, “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.”
I think this was something like the Witness Protection Program.
Actually there are some pretty good trial scenes in the Bible. Scott Turow, John Grisham and John Mortimer, take note. That business with Moses, represented by Aaron, at the court of Pharaoh was a real barn-burner. You’ll recall that the Israelites won the case, but Pharaoh didn’t want to comply with the judgment and the plaintiffs had to take pretty strong measures, namely a bunch of Plagues, to get him to do the right thing.
But that was essentially a civil action, involving false imprisonment, poor working conditions and a ton of unpaid back wages.
And later on there was the really ugly business in the Court of Judge Pilate, but let’s not go into that.
Between the Book of Revelations, quite amazingly, and the beginning of the 19th century, there was essentially no crime to write about. That’s why the literature is so darned sparse, and that’s why good citizens like Stephen Saylor, Lynda Robinson, Sharan Newman and Maan Meyers have been so busily filling in the missing years.
But along came Messrs. Poe and Collins, Mr. Melville Davisson Post and Ms. Anna Katherine Green and the rest of their ilk and started turning out chillers, thrillers, and cozies by the carload, and crime has never been the same.
Farther down the road somebody thought up this thing called “fair play,” meaning that the reader has to have the same information as the gumshoe. Actually, it’s a pretty old idea. Remember that guy God aka the Lord. When Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, he tells Cain about it (in California we call this Mutual Disclosure) and the reader gets the skinny at the same time. In fact, you’ll recall that the crime report informs us right off that Cain “rose up against his brother and killed him.”
Fair Play was annunciated in three forms, apparently independently of one another, all in the magical year of 1928. The Oath of the (London) Detecting Club states: “…your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God.”
Monsignor Ronald A. Knox put it more succinctly in his “Detective Story Decalogue: “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”
And S.S. Van Dine, in his “Twenty Rules of Writing Detective Stories,” starts right off with Fair Play: “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.”
That involves a different mindset from the beat-’em-up, shoot-’em-up, string-’em-up, blow-’em-up kind of story that sometimes infests our field. One thing that Fair Play writers can claim when the debate gets loud: God is on our side.
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Richard A. Lupoff’s most recent novel, The Radio Red Killer, is the seventh in his popular Hobart Lindsay & Marvia Plum mysteries. In a reveiw, Booklist had this to say about this series: “Lupoff, whose interests range from comic-book covers to World War II flying aces, uses his wonderfully eclectic knowledge to produce mysteries that are as informative and suspenseful as they are charming and nostalgic.” Before…12:01…and After contains 23 examples of Lupoff’s short fiction, criminous and otherwise, drawn from a career that began during the Truman administration.