It occurs to me that every novel is a mystery. I don’t mean in the sense of a ‘who done it?’ or a detective story. Even a historical novel – if it’s really a novel, and not a true historical account – is a mystery novel. Because, when we pick the book up, we don’t know exactly what will happen.
For example, I was reading The Volcano Lover, a historical novel by Susan Sontag. It is based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his ‘celebrated wife’, Emma and Admiral Lord Nelson, and it is set during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars which followed. I knew that Emma was Nelson’s mistress, and that her husband, Sir William, didn’t object publicly, but I didn’t know why he didn’t object. The reasons that Ms. Sontag gives are that Sir William was a great deal older than Emma – he was about seventy when the affair began, and that Sir William considered himself to be a good friend of the great hero, and chose to turn a blind eye – at least in public – to the relationship. What I found rather fascinating was Ms. Sontag’s descriptions of the characters of Emma and Nelson. When we first meet Emma in the book, she is in her late teens, manipulative, very talented and beautiful. When Nelson first meets her, she is, next to the Queen of Naples and the Two Sicilies, the most commanding figure in the kingdom. By the end of the book she has lost her looks, has become dissolute and bitter. I don’t know how true to life this is. Certainly, this is plausible, but in doing her research for the novel, did Ms. Sontag read too many of the letters and accounts of people who disliked Emma, and there must have been plenty of them? I found the portrayal of Nelson to be inconsistent with what I thought I knew about the man from reading a great deal of naval history. Ms. Sontag portrays his as a small, sickly man, self-absorbed, and somewhat negligent about obeying orders from the Admiralty – also somewhat negligent in keeping his fleet in Naples or Palermo (where Emma was), rather than pursuing the French. Interesting reading, but to my mind, an overly negative portrayal. Perhaps Ms. Sontag’s affections lay with Sir William – who comes across as a kindly, loyal, but somewhat inept figure – rather than the great hero. My point is that we don’t know – in a historical novel – how much the writer may have interpreted history to make the story more interesting.
Setting aside the historical novel, every other genre (including the detective novel) must have some mystery. Without mystery, we know what will happen, and we lose interest. And it isn’t just the plot which unwinds mysteriously. Characters are more interesting when they do the unexpected but plausible. Settings which are unfamiliar to us and have an air of mystery about them are of interest. Mysterious times can be quite interesting; this accounts, in part, for the popularity of the historical novel and science fiction. But apart from these major sources of mystery, I think that a good writer will often introduce small, unexpected events, or reactions by characters to events. These keep us intellectually engaged with the book, and we think: why did that happen? and I wonder what will happen next!