Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Evolution of the Mystery Novel: Trends, Tropes and Future Directions by James Polkinghorn

We are familiar with the basic structures of mystery novels that have been employed to our delight for more than a century. We encounter an opening revelation of a crime that piques our interest in solving it.  An uneasy mood is created, keeping us on edge as the story unfolds. A sleuth is introduced with some connection to the crime or the perpetrator that invests him or her in solving the mystery. The pace picks up as clues litter the pages, some of them red herrings, others foreshadowing a coming showdown. Finally, an ending wraps things up in a way that satisfies all our pent-up curiosity and expectation.
Though familiar, this formula–if it can be considered one–continues to inspire authors to follow it with little variation. There can be significant rewards for doing so as publishers seek material they know will sell because it always has. The creativity that we see in the genre often comes in the settings and in the character development of the sleuth. Authors describe the action in exotic or little-known locales that serve as travelogs for most readers. They invite us to get to know interesting and quirky characters that we dont often meet in our own lives. The crimes themselves, usually murders, strike right at the heart of our deepest fears.
One fear that is probably not adequately explored in the genre today is that which we harbor toward the looming and seemingly inexorable advance of technology. Without becoming science fiction, there is substantial room for exploration of subjects in this area, many of which naturally create in us feelings of profound unease. It may well be that many writers, who focused more heavily on the arts” when obtaining their arts and sciences degrees in college, are simply uninterested in exploring subject matter that is both foreign and intimidating. Writing itself is hard enough! But this is a fertile field waiting to be tilled, planted, and harvested.
Speaking of technology, the greater fear for all writers thinking about the future is the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in businesses everywhere. Right this very second, engineers around the globe are diligently working to insert thinking machines in business environments that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago. How difficult will it be for AI to write a mystery novel once it learns the basic formula discussed above and peruses every novel ever written as contained on the internet? Would it even be shocking to learn that some graduate student at Stanford has already programmed this in pursuit of his doctorate? One wonders just how long it will be before AI produces a manuscript that its human master takes credit for and has published. Could publishers produce their own content without the necessity of dealing with agents and finicky authors? Time will tell but it would be naive to think this hasnt crossed some very bright minds already.
So, lets celebrate the mystery genre as it has been passed to us and enjoy its works as we find them. Technology, both as subject matter and as existential threat to practitioners, awaits.

James Polkinghorn is a lawyer and partner in a national law firm specializing in labor and employment law. He has extensive trial and litigation experience in multiple jurisdictions throughout the country. A Pittsburgh native, Polkinghorn moved with his family to Florida in high school, where he has since stayed. He has a degree in political science and a law degree from the University of Florida. He now lives in Key West with his wife, Becki, and their dog, Major Tom. Liquid Shades of Blue is his first novel. 
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