What Mystery Writers can learn from Aristotle – Part 4

Early Islamic Portrayal of Aristotle with Alexander the Great. Wikipedia

In this, the last blog post on Aristotle’s Poetics, I’ll focus on the remaining aspects of his treatise. The most important of those is character. And here, contemporary writers have to pick and choose with more care. Some of Aristotle’s points are straightforward, “any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good” (Poetics, chapter XV). As are his statements that characters must be true to life and consistent in their behavior and reactions.

But ancient Greece was a patriarchal and stratified society. One of the reasons its democracy worked was that slaves did all the work so the Greeks could engages in politics. The role of women was also seriously proscribed. So when he says, “Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless;” or “There is a type of manly valor; but valor in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate;” we should actively disregard his advice (ibid.). Although our society has by no means rid itself of the kind of mindset represented by Aristotle, we as writers have a responsibility to nudge our readers toward a world where status, class, or gender are no more important than the color of one’s eyes.

As to diction, thought, and spectacle, there isn’t a whole lot to be added here. Settings should be described vividly; thought should be revealed in speech, rather than action, diction should be measured or “character and thought are merely obscured by a diction that is over brilliant” (Poetics, chapter XXIV).  There is a lot of complex analysis of how Greek poets have used language that seems irrelevant to modern day writers. As I pointed out before, Aristotle is clear that spectacle is poor substitute for well plotted tension.

That leaves us with song. For Aristotle, the chorus was an actor an integral part of the plot. He deplores the practice of later Greek writers to use the chorus merely as an interlude between acts. How does song play in modern mystery fiction? Is it a central part of the plot or an interlude? How many cops or PIs are there who listen to jazz? Why is that? What does it say about the character? Watching the Bosch series recently, I had the sense that jazz served as an interlude. Could it be more? I leave this last part dangling because I don’t have a good answer. But it’s an intriguing question.

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