by Doctor Science
I mentioned my John Donne Test on File770 yesterday, and want to put it down coherently in one place for reference and discussion.
I used to read a lot of mystery stories. A *lot*. One of my favorite Christmas presents while I was growing up was The Annotated Sherlock Holmes; I read Agatha Christie, Earl Stanley Gardner, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout when I was a teen and college student. Then I added many more in my 20s and 30s: Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, Anne Perry, Martha Grimes, Charlotte MacLeod, Carl Hiassen, and on and on.
At some point in there I came up with what I'll call the John Donne Test, because he said "Any man's death diminishes me." The Test is very simple:
Is there a second murder? (a second incident; two people murdered at once doesn't count)
If the answer is "Yes": you fail.
If it's a mystery story without *any* murder, you get an A.
That's it. I was willing to read stories that failed the John Donne Test, but I always *preferred* to read ones that passed.
But eventually, about 15-20 years ago, I just quit reading mysteries, cold turkey. Hardly anything was passing the Test, and the number of bodies per book was weighing on me.
For me, it feels debasing, as though only one human life isn't interesting or important enough to be worth a book. And it also becomes a kind of un-gendered fridging, where people keep dying for the sake of the protagonist's storyline. Murder mysteries on TV would be even worse (if I watched them), because each story takes less time, so the bodies per minute rate gets hideously high -- and also because I find violent images hard to forget.
I'm not saying every mystery story "should" pass the John Donne Test -- I like plenty of ones that don't. But I think it's worth thinking about what "a mystery" might be if it's not a serial killer, and how we could maybe stand to think of every murder as a tragedy.