The Religion of Mystery Literature

The Religion Of Mystery Literature
By Derek Newman-Stille

Like many people, I have a distinct love of mystery stories. I like the act of figuring out who did the crime. I like following the clues. I like believing that I can solve crimes before the investigators do.

One thing that always frustrates me is the finality of a mystery tale, especially when it is on television. There is generally little ambiguity left, little debate about guilt or innocence. So often mysteries (especially when they are tied to a police procedural show) are about reifying the idea that police always catch their criminal and that they are always right. This moral absolutism has always bothered me, as has the lack of questions about guilt or innocence.

One of the ways that mysteries tie up moral ambiguities is through the confession. What is odd is that actual murderers, thieves and other criminals rarely admit to their crimes unless they have worked out a deal with the prosecution for a reduced sentence because they admit to the crime.

Yet, the vast majority of mystery narratives (especially on television) have the killer confess to their crimes and admit guilt. Frequently, mystery narratives on television don’t even bother to wrap up the story, ending right at the point of confession. This highlights the importance of the confession narrative to mystery narratives by considering this the penultimate moment and the ending of the story.

So why are confessions so important to mystery narratives?

I made a connection when watching the television series Father Brown, a tale about a priest who solves crimes in his spare time. As I was watching, I noticed that Father Brown always sought to get a confession from the criminal, linking the confession of crimes to the confessions of the confessional. It occurred to me that this speaks beyond Father Brown and that there was a tint of Judeo-Christian moralizing in many mystery narratives.

Like religions, mystery narratives frequently portray a simple moral system: good/bad. Like religion, mystery narratives provide us with an image of punishment for crime/sin. Like religion, mystery narratives tend to focus on the confession as a key moment in the guilty person’s life.

I started to wonder – have we been primed to like aspects of mystery narratives because of centuries of Judeo-Christian influence on idea of crime? Do we write our mystery narratives along these lines because of the weight of Judeo-Christian ideologies in our society?

Since Judeo-Christian texts are treated as so important in our society, we often replicate aspects of those religious texts as ways of understanding the world even if we don’t prescribe to those religious beliefs. The tremendous impact of Judeo-Christian texts on other texts in our society mean that they often filter through into texts that are not related to religion.

So what is it that we like about mystery tales? What speaks to us about them? Is it the fact that they provide a tidy, easy moralism? Is it the fact that they present us with a world where crime is stopped? Is it the fact that criminals are punished? Or is it the power of the confession that gives us a sense that people can admit guilt and be rehabilitated or redeemed?

Although there are more complex mystery narratives out there and I have read them, there is something about simple mystery stories that appeals to me like Father BrownMurder She Wrote, and Sherlock Holmes.

* As a disclaimer, I am writing about this narrative connection to Judeo-Christian beliefs as someone who is not part of those belief systems,

Northern Heroes With Grit

A review of the Heroes of the North webseries produced by Christian Veil (http://www.heroesofthenorth.com/index.php )
By Derek Newman-Stille

Heroes of the North Logo courtesy of the producers.

Heroes of the North Logo courtesy of the producers.

There has been an increase in Canadian speculative fiction shows lately with programmes like Lost Girl, Sanctuary, and Orphan Black, and they have been fantastic… but I have found myself searching for a really good Canadian superhero show. Although only a webseries at the moment, running on a shoestring budget, I have been excited about the work that has been put into the Heroes of the North series. Rather than creating the typical Canadian superhero group bound together already, Heroes of the North begins with individual tales of superheroes, each showcasing bits and pieces of their personality.

Unlike most Canadian superhero stories, Heroes of the North is a series that explores the violence of crime fighting and the idea that sometimes the line between superhero and supervillain is thin and it is only by calling them “heroes” that we keep them fighting against villains rather than the public.

Dressed in pleather and spattered in blood, these heroes challenge traditional assumptions about the Canadian superhero – the hero that says “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”, while politely bringing criminals to justice. However, this team, incorporating a particularly Canadian aesthetic, brings together Francophone and Anglophone team members and incorporates Canadians across the country into its roster… as well as former criminals. From The Canadian, based in Ottawa with super strength, stamina and an electrostatic shield to 8-Ball, the Montreal-based martial artist/ weapons expert, to Fleur de Lys, the Quebec City-based martial artist with Electricity-generating gauntlets, to Nordik, from Fermont Wall, possessing immunity to cold and bracelets that freeze enemies, to Black Terror, the drug-addicted, nanotechnology enhanced super-strong Griffintowner, to Pacifica, the super-speedster from Victoria, BC, to Acadia, the Moncton-based invisible woman with carbon-fiber blades this is a team that is diverse in ability, origin story, and locale… and they are all willing to go to extreme ends to facilitate their vision of justice. These are morally ambiguous heroes.

Heroes of the North photo courtesy of the producers

Heroes of the North photo courtesy of the producers

Sometimes it takes the morally ambiguous when you have to go up against a pharmaceutical/ weapons manufacturer who is interested in worldwide conquest.

Blending the comic and the macabre, this series questions the superhero genre at the same time as it presents some canon features of the genre. This is kink meets heroic… complete with latex and pleather outfits.

You can discover more about Heroes of the North and watch the webbisodes at http://www.heroesofthenorth.com/index.php .

Here is a link to their indigogo campaign to fund season 2 of the shot https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/heroes-of-the-north-season-2–2 .

Heroes of the North  DVD cover photo courtesy of the producers

Heroes of the North DVD cover photo courtesy of the producers

Everyone Hides Behind Their Masks, Whether They Are Superheroes or Psychiatrists

A Review of Steve Vernon’s The Glint of Moonlight on Broken Glass in Nothing to Lose (Nocturne Press, 2007)

By Derek Newman-Stille

What does pain do to a person? In what way is victimhood contagious? Asks Steve Vernon in his short story The Glint of Moonlight on Broken Glass.  Vernon’s story is a superhero story, but one that is not about someone with incredible powers or a beyond the normal desire for justice. He is a regular man trying to make his city a better place. He is a person in poverty, like many heroes would be – torn between the desire to fight crime and the needs of everyday life in a capitalist society. His hero is one that wears a mask and cape, but lives in a one-room apartment with cockroaches unlike the traditional Marvel and DC comics heroes. He doesn’t have his own method of transportation – no Batmobile – he takes a cab to the hideaways of criminals and into the darker parts of the city, the same as any other citizen would.

This story is fundamentally one about the state of victimhood and may be upsetting for those who have been victims of violent crime. Despite the superhero context, this is a very serious story about the nature of society and the way that crime can spread to encompass more than just the original victim. Pain in this story is like ripples on a pond, spreading outward uncontrollably and affecting greater numbers of people. A lot of that pain centres around those who try to help society, and a psychiatrist in this story becomes both victim and victimiser, having her veneer of control broken by violent crime. She is fundamentally changed by her experience of crime and develops a vampiric hunger to absorb the sensory experience of crime around her, consuming all of the anger and frustration and guilt in the hearts of her patients.  She is a broken mirror reflecting the pain of society, and Steve Vernon asks the question, how can one defeat pain? How can one defeat victimhood?

The hero of The Glint of Moonlight on Broken Glass aptly calls himself Captain Nothing, aware that there is fundamentally nothing under his masks but more masks, an endless Russian nesting doll, a Matryoshka doll spiraling toward a hollow core with every level that is taken away. He represents the anonymity of the city, the social masks that people in civilisation wear to hide their inner selves and the danger that wearing multiple masks can make when one loses sight of their own identity. Masks of class, masks of profession, masks of emotional health that cover the lack of substantial identity beneath. Vernon asks the question what lies beneath the masks? and reminds us that often we wear masks not to hide from others, but to hide from ourselves.

You can read more about Steve Vernon at http://stevevernonstoryteller.wordpress.com/  and you can purchase Nothing to Lose at http://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Lose-Adventures-Captain-ebook/dp/B004KSR2FE/ref=sr_1_1_title_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1345918131&sr=1-1&keywords=nothing+to+lose+steve+vernon