Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Mystery vs. Gothic

Hailey as a skeleton (after Gramma made the top smaller)

Halloween Spiders - photo from 2012 but we make them each year

Ingredients: double-stuffed oreos, mini oreos, pretzel sticks - snapped in half, white chocolate drops & diamonds cut from fruit roll-ups. All glued together with melted chocolate.


The Difference Between Mystery and Gothic

I don't check my reviews very often, but when I did this week, one thing leaped out at me. (Besides the reviewer who forced a loud burst of laughter (appreciative laughter) out of me because she was so angry with the hero of The Welshman's Bride—fully involved in her indignation of his treatment of the heroine.) 

But the reviewer of one of my other Regency Gothics said something that made me stop and think. He/she was not happy because the villain was not kept a big secret until the final revelation. And that got me to thinking, Hmm, I think I know the feel of a Gothic as opposed to a Mystery - mostly because I've read so many of them, but obviously, it's not so clear to others. And who knows, perhaps the genres have so much cross-over, it really is difficult to tell them apart. Certainly, very few of any fiction genre's rules are set in stone any more. But today I'm going to attempt to list the differences as I see them.

1. First person or third?  
Mysteries can be written in either first person or third. Some are written in both - the hero or heroine's viewpoint in first person, other viewpoints in third.

A Gothic is written in first person only. This is because Gothic novels emphasize the main character's vulnerability. She is alone, on her own. Readers can't be allowed to see into other people's heads and find out if they're good guys or bad guys. 
2. Male or Female Point of View.
The main character in a mystery can be either male or female, occasionally a couple (m/f, m/m, f/f) working as partners.  

The main character in a Gothic has to be female. A lone female, without the support of friends or family. A vulnerable, threatened male just doesn't cut it.

3.  Murder or Attempted Murder.
The whole point to a mystery is that there is a murder(s) to solve - a puzzle if you will - questions to be asked, clever detecting, etc. Mysteries are "who done it's" in the classic sense.

The whole point to a Gothic novel is that a murder(s) may happen, but attempted murder, the threat of murder, even an imagined threat, is more important than solving an actual murder. The ambiance, the atmosphere on every page is more important than solving the question of who did what to whom.

4. Drama or Comedy.
As anyone who's ever read Janet Evanovich knows, mysteries can be either drama, comedy, or both. 

Gothics by their very nature are drama, sometimes melodrama. Dark, drear, threatening, scary. Hard to get any humor in there, although I try. 

Mysteries vary in the amount of action they show. From, say, James Lee Burke, with lots of action, "onstage" murders, and the hero up to his neck in mayhem to Cozy Mysteries, where murders occur "offstage" and the action is usually muted to accommodate those who like to keep well away from blood and gore.

Gothics often have both kinds of action. "Onstage" attempted murder, "Offstage" murder(s), and finally a dramatic "onstage" crisis involving the heroine, who somehow always manages to survive.

A mystery can be set almost anywhere and in any time period.

Gothic novels of the 18th & 19th c. were primarily set in dark and eerie castles or gloomy mansions. Today, as long as the author gets the dark & eerie ambiance correct, the setting can be almost anywhere—even, as in my current Regency Gothic, Tangled Destinies, a fine country home nestled in the beauty of the Cotswolds. 

Modern Gothics can be contemporary or historical, although most Gothic historicals are set in the 19th c. Many consider the Victorian era THE period for Gothic novels—the classic example, the novels of Victoria Holt. For classic examples of contemporary Gothics, you can't do better than the works of Mary Stewart. 

I personally prefer the early 19th c., which is why I call mine "Regency Gothics." Can you set a Gothic in another time period? Of course . . . but will readers accept it? Who knows? Tradition is a funny thing. 

In a mystery almost anything goes, as long as there is a murder to be solved. The main character/detective, can be an amateur or a professional (law enforcement or private eye). A great many questions must be asked, convoluted paths followed, perhaps another death or two. If the main character is an amateur detective, there is usually a professional lurking in the background, offering criticism, and sometimes help.

In a Gothic, the struggling heroine attempts to figure out things on her own. She is alone, no backup. Her romantic interest is frequently the person who looks most guilty, the person she dare not trust. She may have a lot of questions and doubts running through her head, but few, if any, people she can rely on. The solution to the disasters that are happening around her are important, but not as important as the general feeling of imminent threat - to herself and/or to a child.*

*Most Gothics use the device of an innocent child in one way or another. Not a "rule," but a common thread. In my current Regency Gothic, the threatened child is a baby.

Grace note:  For the benefit of my foreign readers, "onstage" is a term borrowed from the theater, indicating that an action is described in detail, happening "live" in the pages of the book. "Offstage" indicates that certain actions, such as a murder, are mentioned in the book, but readers are only told about the event. It is not described in gory detail, either at the time it happens or when the detective investigates the scene of the crime. 

Romance is optional in Mystery. 

Romance is essential to a Gothic novel, although the road is rocky, as the heroine suspecting the hero of villainy is one of the primary themes of a Gothic. 

Mystery - a puzzle—almost always a murder(s)—to be solved through meticulous investigation - sometimes clever, sometimes just plain dogged.

Gothic - a dark, threatening atmosphere combined with murder, attempted murder, and/or other dangers (real or imagined). The general ambiance, the continuing threat-level are more important than "who done it."

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Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

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  1. Ah, that explains a lot to me! I love love love mysteries. I'm very much a puzzle person. But I LOATHE tension and terror in stories, which is why I prefer mysteries where the actual murder part is understated. Romance + Terror = Count Me Out.

    But if I can't bring myself to read your (undoubtedly well-written) Gothic novels, I really enjoy reading here about the writing and editing process.