First, I read the Mystery Classic, a feature in every issue showcasing an historical mystery short story. Jason Half runs the Gladys Mitchell tribute website. Half wrote the story introduction, giving Mitchell’s literary biography. She was a contemporary of well-known mystery authors Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and a prolific writer, yet she did not achieve the same level of fame.
Mitchell is on my TBR (to be read) list, along with dozens of other books. I was happy to be introduced to the author with her short story Daisy Bell. The setting is the contemporary (1940) English countryside. Although descriptions are spare, Mrs. Bradley observes the “moorland scenery” from the back seat of her car. After a chance encounter with a young woman on a bicycle, Mrs. Bradley notices something out of place on the side of the road, and tells her chauffeur to stop. Mitchell’s sleuth seems to constantly gather potential clues, putting everything together for a tidy solution at the end.
The next story I read was The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place, by Debra H. Goldstein. Set in the Civil Rights era in Birmingham, Alabama, the nameless narrator is a young boy whose innocence adds a layer to the mystery. The reader quickly realizes what is going on, while he simply observes. Clues are given discretely, culminating in a solution that the boy only seems to fully understand later in life.
At first glance, these two stories could not be more different. The historical settings are decades apart. Mrs. Bradley, an older woman with enough resources to have a chauffeur, is the third person point of view character in Daisy Bell. A young boy, whose mother has to do housekeeping in a house of ill repute to make ends meet, narrates The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place in first person point of view.
Despite grand differences of character, setting, and POV, the stories struck me as sharing a specific mystery story style. That may indicate this mystery format transcends time and space, but on a less philosophical level, both authors created puzzle stories. Yes, setting and character are important, but the goal of the story is to solve a mystery with clues presented within the tale.
Then aren’t all mystery stories puzzles? Not really. A few mystery stories are open-ended, leaving the reader to ponder different potential solutions. In some, the mystery may seem secondary to telling a larger tale. Nothing wrong with either – just a difference in style.
In my definition, the puzzle story does not delve deeply into issues peripheral to solving the mystery. Character development, setting description, theme, and other elements of literature may be present, but in light touches. If you analyze the puzzle story, you will clearly see clue 1, clue 2, clue 3, suspects, and bam! - the solution.
I won’t divulge those clues in Daisy Bell and The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place. You’ll want to discover them for yourself. Then see if you can find the solution to the mystery before the protagonist. Happy sleuthing!
Feel free to leave a comment if you have a different take on my definition of the puzzle story.