Tuesday, November 27, 2012

More than Mystery

Digging into the archives from Sleuths, Spies & Alibis' early days to bring you this post on the allure of mysteries -- and why, thematically, they can be so perfect for young readers:

I’d make a terrible sleuth. It took me three decades to actually notice how much of a mystery fan I am, despite heaps of early evidence. I missed every clue. The dog-eared pages on The Westing Game and The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The bookshelves lined with the trademark yellow spines of Nancy Drew volumes, each one promising to reveal all manner of secrets about clocks, ranches, and bungalows. The unwise seventh-grade choice to study French instead of Spanish, motivated by an urgent need to understand Hercule Poirot’s untranslated asides. And what about the hours spent with the Bobbsey Twins, for goodness’ sake? Anyone who’ll put up with Nan and Bert — let alone Freddie and Flossie — clearly suffers from advanced stage mystery disease.

 Freddie & Flossie:
Symptoms of Stage IV Mystery Disease
I can forgive my bad detective work, though. It isn’t as if I was drawn to mysteries exclusively. Mysteries merely amplify what I already love about stories: the delicious withholding of  information until just the right moment, the transforming of the familiar into the strange, the satisfying way order triumphs over chaos in the end. In his book On Moral Fiction, John Gardner described art as a “game played…against entropy.” It’s an apt description, I think. Stories weave the unruly strands of everyday life into a satisfying whole. And what’s more satisfying than a case solved and a culprit brought to justice?

My younger self would claim that nothing is more satisfying. Which means, too, that nothing could possibly be worse than a book that leaves too many questions unanswered. I am more forgiving now (though I have to admit, the trend of cliffhanger endings in series still rankles me), but back then I loved mysteries because it comforted me to see justice served and order restored. My family was constantly on the move, and by the time I turned 9, I had already been the “new kid” at 5 different schools. I craved neat resolutions to distract me from the abandoned plot-lines in my own life.

Idaville would be in
serious trouble without
Encyclopedia on the case
Besides, I loved reading about kids who had all the answers for a change. That Sheriff Brown couldn’t solve a single Idaville case without Encyclopedia taking charge. And Carson Drew may be good in a courtroom, but let’s face it: the dude would have long been dead if Nancy wasn’t always saving him. In my own life, adults always thought they knew better than I did. That got old fast, especially considering they lacked answers to life’s most basic questions.

As I got older, mysteries compelled me because they wrestled with the same uncertainties I faced as I navigated an ever-changing social landscape. At their simplest level, mysteries deal with a central question: whom can you trust? They remind us of the secrets lurking not far from the surface, the lies people tell, the incongruity between some people’s public faces and their private selves. They dramatize the same questions about loyalty and friendship I was asking myself as a teen. In fact, mysteries delved into an even more troubling question I was wrestling with, whether I recognized it at the time or not: how much could I really trust myself?  Like a mystery reader, I was constantly questioning my own perceptions and revising my assumptions about the cast of characters around me.

I write for the younger unsuspecting mystery fan that I was. The one who didn’t realize she was wrestling with questions of loyalty, assumptions, and self-confidence because she was all wrapped up in reading about madcap hijinks and battles of wits. For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than writing for an age group still working hard to solve the mystery of who they are and where they fit in.


A former middle school English teacher, Kristen Kittscher lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, Kai. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled cat and dog. Her middle grade debut, THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, comes out from Harper Children's on June 18, 2013.


  1. Great post. I love mysteries and reading what you wrote, I realized the The Bobbsey Twins Solve a Mystery followed by lots of Nancy Drew was my first mystery of many.

    I am always glad when a writer pens a mystery for MG-age kids.

  2. Thanks, Alex. Hard to believe that The Bobbsey Twins was alluring enough - and yet, they were!

  3. Trixie Belden was my drug of choice.

  4. I love this post, Kristen. I can relate to not realizing I was a mystery fan until it became blatantly obvious (i.e. when I started writing books!) I now know they're some of my most cherished types of stories.


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