Puzzles and mysteries

Puzzles and mysteries

Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

— I Corinthians 15:51-52, The Holy Bible (Revised Standard Version)

We’re facing a mystery here. We know that ChicagoNow is ending, and we don’t know when. We don’t even know who to ask. So, as is my wont, I am trying to make sure that we have the correct words to use to write about it all.

The word puzzle, according to Oxford Languages dictionaries, is used as a verb, “to cause (someone) to feel confused because they cannot understand or make sense of something,’ or as a noun, “a game, toy, or problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge.”

So what’s going to happen to ChicagoNow is puzzling us — and being a puzzle, too, testing our ingenuity and knowledge about what to do and how long to do it.

A mystery, on the other hand, is more like the biblical usage above: Oxford Languages cites “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain” before its other definition, “a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.”

Mystery novels, as they’re commonly known, do have solutions at the end of the book. At least the problems seem mysterious, and there is a point in many plots in which the detective and surrounding characters don’t see that any solution is possible. But the fewer pages you’re holding in your right hand, the more likely a solution becomes.

I suppose that when I get to the point of selling my novels — when the second one’s finished and the first one gets a good polishing — I will need to call them mysteries. But for now, I’d rather call them detective stories. They have puzzles and solutions. Sometimes, the detectives are stuck and feeling like things are too mysterious. But they are puzzles, and I know the solutions (ha ha).

Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific British author who, to my eyes, knows well the difference between a puzzle (which the plot of a book can solve) and a mystery (which doesn’t get solved in this world). Pondering the mysteries that won’t be solved by the story’s end is part of the joy of Smith’s work.

Dorothy L. Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and his fellow investigators, was a fine theological scholar as well as a writer of novels. She referred to Lord Peter’s cases as detective stories and to her theological writing as her mystery writing. (She might have joined Agatha and Daphne in my Imaginary Writers’ Room, if only there were time.)

Meanwhile, I ponder the verses from I Corinthians and wonder how, in the face of Handel’s magnificent musical version in “The Messiah,” any modern English translators can swap “will” for “shall.” The best description I’ve heard of that is that “will” is the future of “to be,” while “shall” is the future of “should.” That reassures me when I think of these verses.

Should it be possible to actually hear when that last trumpet sounds, I can’t imagine what kind of changes will come. Still, I think I will be faintly disappointed if it turns out that Handel was not taking dictation as he wrote that music.

Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook. If ChicagoNow becomes unavailable, please see the Margaret Serious page on Facebook for information.


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Margaret H. Laing

I moved to Chicago from the south suburbs in 1986. I have diverse interests, but I love writing about what I’m interested in. Whether it’s a personal interest or part of my career, the correct words to get the idea across are important to me. I love words and languages — French and Scottish words enrich my American English. My career has included years as a journalist and years working in museums, and the two phases were united by telling stories. I’m serious about words and stories. So here I am, ready to tell stories about words and their languages.

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