Some of the newer material on management or conflict resolution seems repetitive to me, and I started thinking about what it lacked. Coming up with a new seven-point system that restates the old seven-point system might be a new way of saying something old, but it seems insufficient.
I finally realized that the new material lacked reinvention – the ability not just to restate but to rethink. To figure out what I meant by reinvention, I started reading in other areas. It’s August, so I went to a favorite category and found really interesting reinvention, in mysteries. If you’re not a fan of mysteries, please read just two more paragraphs. If you enjoy mysteries, please stick with me a bit longer.
Mysteries tell you how people explain the unexplainable, which on some level, is what mediators do. We often don’t understand how two parties can be so far apart over so little. In one of my cases, the amount in question was under ten dollars, what we all thought was a ridiculous amount to foster impasse until we fully understood the mystery of what drove that party to take that position. It required examining details, asking very thoughtful and sometimes sensitive questions, of sticking with the discovery process and not going too quickly to negotiation because we really didn’t understand what we were negotiating.
Some mysteries not only suggest how to get to details people may want to hide but also how to change a process or an approach, how to reinvent it. Sometimes that reinvention is what is needed to answer the central question, whether that is “whodunnit” or “why is this so important to this party.”
I started thinking about this because I was immediately intrigued by “Hammett Unwritten” by Owen Fitzstephen, or maybe Gordon McAlpine. That’s the first mystery. This novel claims to explain why Dashiell Hammett, one of the greatest mystery writers and author of “The Maltese Falcon,” stopped writing 25 years before he died. This book is part a continuation of “The Maltese Falcon,” part an occult story, and part an enormous con, both within the story and on the reader. It is the perfect summer book and a perfect way to think about reinvention. All those characters from both real life and the movies (and the book), and a new story that combines them both. I’m still not sure what’s absolutely real and I don’t want to do the research to find out; it would spoil the book.
Sherlock Holmes has also been reinvented over the last ten years. The great detective has a gap in activities in the first series of stories, so several contemporary authors have explained that gap by saying that he was on secret missions – in the United States. I read these so long ago that I’ve already donated them to the library and don’t have titles or authors to suggest, but they take the same approach as “Hammett Unwritten.” Using both real and fictional characters, these stories build on real events and deal with contemporary issues, in one case, the attempt by industrial robber barons to take over the vast forests of the northern mid-west for their own purposes. It’s a story about ecology and ethics, and of course a few murders, but it is the reinvention that makes it so interesting.
Jane Austin fans will probably have already discovered the reinvention of both Jane and her characters. Stephanie Barron turns Jane into a detective in a series of Jane Austin Mysteries whose titles all start with “Jane and the . . .” Austen’s detailed perceptions of English society contribute to solving several murders in the countryside, and Barron’s ability to update without destroying Austen’s prose style contributes to the reinvention.
P.D. James, a renowned mystery writer, also reinvented Austen in “Death Comes to Pemberly.” James does a bit more reinventing of the language than Barron, but the mystery and the relationship between the Darcys is a great read. Even “The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen” is examined as a new mystery by Lindsay Ashford, and English society name if there ever was one, seen from the perspective of the former governess of the Austen family. New, plausible characters continue the narrative of a death I didn't even know was mysterious.
In these stories I was struck most by the pattern of taking what is familiar and known and reinventing it so that it is still plausible, still comfortable, still part of the original but also builds on and adds to the original. We all have to do that kind work sometimes, and we have to find inspiration in places that are just familiar enough so that we can accept a new premise without tossing out what makes the reinvention so interesting. Whether those ideas come from mystery or science fiction or neuroscience or history, we need to take those new insights and apply them where ever they can be useful. Sometimes that’s just to finding another way to enjoy Holmes, or Austen or Hammett, and sometimes it’s reinventing ourselves. You never know what the mystery will reveal.
It’s August. Read a mystery.