Please welcome B.K. Stevens who has a few thoughts about the universal message that runs throughout mystery and literature……
By B.K. Stevens
Hamlet is full of mysteries. I don’t mean the death of Hamlet’s father. Since his ghost shows up at the end of Act I to reveal exactly where, when, how, why, and by whom he was murdered, the play’s not much of a whodunit. But Hamlet does hold other sorts of mysteries. For example, does Hamlet merely feign madness, or does he actually slip into it? Scholars and critics can debate that one until Hamlet’s too, too solid flesh finally melts—or is it his too, too sullied flesh? Scholars and critics can debate that one endlessly, too. Then there’s the mystery that puzzled me deeply when I first read the play way back in high school. When I eventually (I think) figured it out, it gave me some insight into why mysteries have such a strong appeal—and why they’re so important.
The lines that seemed so odd to me come near the end of Act I, right after Hamlet talks to his father’s ghost. The ghost says he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, who then married his widow and assumed his throne. Hamlet is enraged and shocked. Only hours ago, Claudius had spoken to him kindly, seeming so loving, so concerned—and all the time he was hiding this horrible secret. Hamlet reaches for his writing tablet, or “tables,” and says,
Oh villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least, I’m sure it may be so in Denmark. [Writing]
Shakespeare includes one of his rare stage directions to make it clear that Hamlet literally writes this insight down. He seems to want to emphasize its importance.
I didn’t get it. Hamlet’s supposed to be smart. The other characters think he’s smart, and his dialogue has been witty and quick. But he never before realized people can pretend to be nice but actually be nasty? That’s obvious—everybody knows that. Hamlet, though, acts as if it’s news to him, and he writes it down as if he’s afraid he’ll forget it. How is that consistent with his character?
The question came back to mind from time to time over the years, whenever I taught the play or watched it performed. And it came to mind again when I ran across a statement by Jim Thompson, the author of The Killer Inside Me and other hardboiled crime novels. “There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one,” Thompson says. “But there is only one plot—things are not as they seem.” The first part of that statement struck me as playful: I doubted Thompson had actually counted up thirty-two ways of writing a story. The second part of the statement struck me as outrageous—and also as quite possibly true.
“Things are not as they seem”—again, that seems obvious, so obvious it hardly needs to be said, far too obvious to be the plot of every literary work ever written. I tried testing Thompson’s formula against everything from fairy tales to far more sophisticated works. Cinderella seems doomed to a servile, miserable life, while her stepmother and stepsisters seem completely in control—but that doesn’t stay true for long. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy seems thoroughly despicable, Mr. Wickham thoroughly honorable—but Elizabeth discovers the reverse is true. And Claudius smiles and smiles but proves a villain.
Could that really be the lesson all literature teaches us? Why should we need to be taught such a basic lesson so often? Why should Hamlet need to write it down in his tablet?
Maybe it’s because on one level, yes, we all know that appearances can be deceiving, that we need to think critically, that we have to look beneath the surface to find the truth. But we don’t believe it, not really. We don’t believe it because we don’t want to. We all like to think of ourselves as savvy, even skeptical, but we keep getting tricked again and again. We meet a charming person and want to believe we’ve found a true friend; we hear an inspiring speech and want to believe we’ve found a true leader. In our personal lives, in our professional lives, in politics, we keep forgetting that things are not as they seem. We keep being deceived by smiling villains.
Maybe that’s why literary works need to keep hitting us over the head with the same obvious message. Maybe that’s why Hamlet was smart enough to realize he needed to write it down in his tablet. And maybe that’s why we need to keep reading mysteries.
In mysteries, the lesson that things are not as they seem is front and center. The obvious suspect is probably not the actual murderer, the motive is probably not what it at first seems to be, and the method, the time of death, and just about everything else could also defy our expectations. Mysteries constantly remind us to stay alert, to question everything we see, to avoid making easy assumptions. And they don’t just preach that lesson: They make us live through it, again and again, as we share characters’ delusions and discoveries. In that way, mysteries act as a powerful antidote to the natural human inclination to accept the surface of things without digging deeper.
Mysteries can also offer us other lessons, of course, and so can other kinds of literature. At their best, they help us learn how to distinguish between the apparent and the real. But as long as they keep hammering away at the basic message Jim Thompson identifies, as long as they keep reminding us of the painful truth Hamlet writes down in his tablet, that’s probably reason enough to keep reading.
B. K. Stevens ©2016
B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance, a young adult martial arts mystery. She’s also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and has won a Derringer and been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. This year, Fighting Chance and one of her stories are both nominated for Agatha awards. www.bkstevensmysteries.com.