Because of its unique position at the boundary of the literary and the technical worlds, Eastgate sometimes finds itself running the world's first toll-free literary-criticism hotline. Readers, writers, reporters: all of them call for advice on choosing a hypertext they'd like to read.
It's not uncommon for new callers to ask us to recommend a hypertext mystery. Unfortunately, that particular cupboard is rather bare. I know of no really good hypertext mysteries, in Eastgate's catalog or anyone else's. (A few promising titles are forthcoming, especially Chris Willerton's Londale Hotel, but that doesn't help readers right now.) This disappoints many readers and astounds reporters and media insiders -- especially film industry folk, to whom interactive mysteries seem to promise instant box office. Why hasn't the first decade of literary hypertext produced more good mysteries?
A mystery is not a story about solving crimes, about deduction or detection. Mysteries are about healing: a peaceful (or, at any rate normal) world is torn apart, and the mystery recounts our hero's effort to make things right again. The process may include puzzles and procedures, but then again it might not. Juggling alibis and timetables, bits of cigar ash and traces of exotic mud may sometimes occupy the characters, but such matters rarely enthrall the reader and they are rarely central to the tale. First-person detective puzzles that promise the chance to let you solve the mystery can be entertaining, but they aren't mysteries.
Most of the computer games and interactive videos that attempt to emulate the mystery story are relentlessly first person: the reader is the protagonist, the reader's actions drive the story, the reader is the center of everything. That's rarely a good strategy for mystery stories: Sherlock Holmes is made possible by Watson. When mystery writers choose the first person, they usually employ it to highlight the limits of the protagonist -- to emphasize the weakness of the individual in the face of great and malicious forces. Hard-boiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Sarah Paretsky use first person to emphasize how feeble and limited their heroes are. Despite their physical prowess, we are always aware how little their heroes know, how vulnerable they feel, and how great is the personal cost of the resolution they achieve.
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean . . . He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as a man of his age talks -- [with] a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for same, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth. (Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder)
Even if a mystery is not an exercise in detection, it might seem that nonlinearity itself would pose a serious obstacle. If the tale unfolds in many different orders, what would happen if the solution to the crime were disclosed at the outset instead of at the end? As it happens, this isn't necessarily a problem. It's quite common for mysteries to begin with the solution; by removing the obvious source of suspense, a writer is freed to develop the story in other directions.
A more serious problem, though, is posed by a formal constraints central to modern drama: resolution must be earned. The answer must not seem to fall from the sky, nor may our heroine be saved in the final scene by a god's miraculous (and unmotivated) intervention. A linear narrative can ensure that is resolution is motivated by all that has gone before; a hypertext must work harder to ensure that resolutions, whenever they occur, emerge from the preceding action.
Dynamic links, such as Storyspace guard fields, are often crucial to creating narratives that don't cheat.
Different Places, Different People
The mystery lends itself particularly well to an interest in People Who Are Not Like Us. The force of the mystery's ritual progress toward restoration and wholeness is made more telling when the normalcy to which we aspire is itself strange and exciting. The current generation of mystery writers excels at creating unusual, unexpected, and vivid visions of exotic normalcy. Laurence Shames writes about middle-aged New York schlemiels who wash up, to their surprise, in Key West. Sujata Massey writes about an Asian-American student living as an impoverished outsider in Japan. Mary Wings writes about lesbian high society, Lawrence Block about urban barflies, Barbara Hambly about 19th-century vampires, Liza Cody about female professional wrestlers.
Unlike these mystery writers, the first generation of hypertext writers has had (by and large) other interests. This is, I suspect, an accident, and is bound to change in the next few years. Some writers, though, choose exotic people and places to capture the reader's attention; hypertext itself, with its novel juxtaposition of literature and technology, provides novelty in spades. As readers grow more familiar with literary machines, the temptations of the exotic will doubtless prove more compelling to hypertext writers
We can see some reasons for the lack of convincing hypertext mysteries. It's important, though, to avoid assuming that hypertext mysteries are impossible. The brief history of hypertext writing is already full of surprises. Short stories, for instance, once seemed an inhospitable destination for hypertext; yet the emergence of short hypertext fiction has been perhaps the most distinctive development of the last few years.
For hypertext readers, as for detectives, it pays to stay alert. You never know what might happen.