Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the show where we look at various genres and dissect exactly what is meant when they’re mentioned in this blog. Today’s subject is the paranormal mystery.
This is kind of a fine distinction, and once upon a time I would have just lumped this in as a subgenre of urban fantasy. But after some reading I’ve come to be of the opinion that the paranormal mystery is distinct enough to qualify as a genre of its own. What defines it? I’m glad you asked.
An aggressive mixture of traditional investigation techniques and mystical or magical methods of detection. While urban fantasy is about the blending of the supernatural and the mundane, paranormal mysteries are about methods of investigation – they’re a kind of ‘what if’. A great example is Alex Hughes‘ Mindscape Investigation novels, where a powerful psychic serves as a consultant for the local police. He can read minds and, to a lesser extent, emotional echoes from locations, but the evidence he gathers is only admissible under some circumstances. For the most part, while the main character can generate leads, the police still have to do their share of legwork and deduction. See also Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series for a similar take. The X-Files, on the other hand, is about trying to understand the paranormal using human science, with the characters bringing varying levels of faith in the paranormal to the table, but it still fits into this genre. There’s many different ways a paranormal investigation can work to strike a balance, but they all have to have a balance between the paranormal and normal aspects of the investigation in order to count – paranormal abilities can’t let the detective cheat or be the only angle the investigators pursue.
An emphasis on the paranormal as strange and unpredictable, even to those who have spent their whole life working with it. While most paranormal investigators have a concrete problem their trying to solve, like a murder or mysterious disappearance, the very paranormal forces they’re dealing with tend to be opaque and not entirely understood. Whether no one’s ever used magic as an investigation tool before or the nature of the Masquerade makes it almost impossible to find the goblin witness detectives need to interview, the paranormal forces at work can be as much a hindrance as a help to investigators. While a particular book/episode in a series may deal with a specific paranormal crime, the difficulties of the medium serve as a unifying arc. Laura Anne Gillman’s Paranormal Scene Investigators series provides a good example of this.
A mix of paranormal and mundane sources of trouble. This is part of what justifies keeping regular investigation methods around. While a powerful psychic may hypnotize people to extort their money he probably has to launder it or otherwise keep it safe using normal banking methods. Or, conversely, a powerful mob boss may be keeping evidence of his mundane crimes suppressed by hiding them behind magical illusions. A ghost haunting a hospital may turn out to be the victim of a decades old murder that has to be solved before the spirit will rest. Regardless, both mundane and paranormal methods of investigation will be necessary to solve the problem.
What is the greatest weakness of a paranormal investigation story? Probably the incredibly delicate balancing act involved in keeping your mundane and your magical angles of investigation relevant. Lean to far one way and there’s no need for ghosts and goblins in your story at all, lean too far the other and there’s no need for normal forensics or deduction at all. Worse, because of the many ways the paranormal can enter into stories, from fairies in the attic to wizards killing with curses, there’s no short list of tropes writers can turn to for reference, at least not yet. Time may ease this difficulty.
What is the greatest strength of a paranormal investigation story? Probably it’s incredible diversity. As I mentioned in the police procedural post, and again in my post on the detective story, mysteries are in no small part about their characters. And that’s good, I’m for anything that encourages strong characters. But there are only so many ways you can dress up a robbery or a murder with mundane tools, so many ways to execute a kidnapping or make a ship go lost at sea. Adding a plethora of new paranormal tricks, or new paranormal creatures to conspire with or paranormal obstacles to overcome this genre can bring a new feeling of freshness or just give a story new directions to go in.
Paranormal investigations are kind of a young genre, one of the earliest examples of it would be the 1965 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even that only lightly touches on the possibilities of the genre. I’m not sure where it’s going yet, but I think I’m going to getting there.