Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Mystery: “Whodunit” or “Whom do you seek”? A guest essay by Sarah Kennedy

In today's guest essay, author Sarah Kennedy explores the different meanings of "mystery" in English history and in her own fiction, which includes (so far) two novels set in the Tudor era.  Her latest release, City of Ladies, is published this month by Knox Robinson Publishing in hardcover ($27.99 / £19.99).


Mystery: “Whodunit” or “Whom do you seek”? 
by Sarah Kennedy

When I first began writing The Cross and the Crown, my series of historical novels set in Tudor England, I was interested primarily in my main character, a young nun named Catherine Havens. The first book, The Altarpiece, opens with the sixteenth-century dissolution of the convents and monasteries in England, and one of the “mysteries” is the hiding place of the convent’s missing altarpiece. In constructing that plot, I tried to create a bit of traditional mystery, but I laid clues that were not too difficult to follow because I wanted readers to focus as much on the character development of Catherine as they did on the “whodunit” of the missing altarpiece and the dead sexton.

The second novel in the series, City of Ladies, also contains an element of mystery in the plot: several former nuns have gone missing and they wind up dead. Catherine, as the lady of the house, wants to know who is committing these horrendous murders. In time-honored mystery fashion, the killer is revealed at the end . . . sort of. A question hangs over the conclusion, because the characters are themselves often questionable.

This brings me to my own concern with mystery as both plot and character. In my series, the great “mystery” of the culture, Renaissance England, is the mystery of the Christian religion. Not long before Henry VIII broke from Rome, plays performed in cycles were quite common all over Europe. These came to be called “mystery plays” and they told stories from the Bible, both old and new Testaments, often combining quite low comedy with profound representations of holy men and women. The plays probably began with church performances of important moments in the church calendar, and the first one was probably the Easter story. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, only to discover that the tomb is empty. Distraught, she searches for the body and encounters a man dressed as a gardener. He says, “Quem quaeritis?”—or “Whom do you seek?” She looks into his face and discovers the greatest mystery of the church: Jesus has risen from the grave. That resurrection, promised to all believers, becomes the great “mystery” of the Christian faith: all humans are mortal and all humans sin, and yet all can rise again from death.

The plays soon moved out of the church and were put on in towns and villages during the summer, with large wagons used as mobile stages. The stories grew in number and by the fifteenth century were shown in great cycles, with the different individual plays performed simultaneously in village squares and along high roads. They often featured elaborate sets and costumes, made by local craftsmen and labor guild members, who were lucky enough to have steady work. They also performed the various parts, both good and evil. These labor guilds were called “mysteries.” So these “mystery plays” contained within their very name multiple meanings. They played out the “mystery” of God’s creation, of the existence of evil, and of the forgiveness of sin. They were also played by actors who were members of “mysteries.”

All of this has been in my mind as I’ve been writing the series, especially as I’ve been revising book three, The King’s Sisters. There is some mystery involved in the plot (though I won’t reveal exactly what!), but, for me, the genre of the mystery novel—the whodunit element—is complicated in writing about people of faith and moments of doubt during the Renaissance. The mystery of murder—the “peculiar crime,” as P.D. James puts it—is bound up with the mystery of good and evil and the mystery of human choice, as well as the mystery of power, thought to have been conferred on the king at coronation . . . and putting into his hands the decision to grant life or death to his subjects.

Do I make use of the traditional clues and final reveal of classical mystery plots? Sometimes I do, though not always in traditional ways. I still like to think of mystery as not only a genre—and who doesn’t like to be on the edge of the seat, reading to find out who the criminal really is?—but also as a way of thinking about character. The word has deep roots in social class and religious belief. Human character itself is also a mystery, and the more elements that are revealed, the more readers understand why anyone does what he or she does. What exactly is crime? Is it murder if the king orders the killing? Is it treason if a plot to circumvent the king’s laws succeeds?

For me, mystery becomes almost emblematic sometimes. The “whodunit” in fiction always, for me, is bound up with the discovery of human character—“whom do you seek?” We read mystery, at least in part, because it deals with fundamental questions of good and evil . . . and sometimes we are led to understand the criminal, even as we applaud the person who unravels the crime. Mystery forces readers to consider what makes a person resort to lying, cheating, stealing, or killing, and in doing so, it raises a question for all of us. How far are we from becoming criminals ourselves? What would push any of us over that edge, into an act so heinous that it requires punishment?

The answer can be an uncomfortable one: we all make errors of judgment; perform hasty, ill-thought-out acts; and commit offenses against others, and our circumstances may be the only difference between us and the “bad guy.” We may all be just a few unlucky turns from becoming that lawbreaker. The mystery, both as plot and character, dramatizes this fictionally and has long allowed us to both to revel in the tangled events that lead to crime and to rehabilitate the tangled hearts that we all carry within us.

Sarah Kennedy is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia and the author of seven books of poems.

She holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.

Sarah has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah.

Sarah has been publishing a series of novels with Knox Robinson centering around the sixteenth century closure of the monasteries and convents of England by King Henry VIII.  Visit her website at


  1. I enjoyed reading this essay. The traveling labor guilds/mysteries make me think of the American Chautauqua movement. I'm anxious to read these books by Ms Kennedy.

    1. I had the same thought as I was reading the essay, Linda. I once saw a mystery play performed at a modern Renaissance Faire, and it was definitely worth attending.