Ken Jennings


August 10, 2007

potter.jpgWe stopped in a bookstore yesterday because Dylan and his lima-bean-sized bladder urgently needed a restroom. On our way back to the stall, he marveled, “Look at all those copies of Harry Potter and the Daily Hello’s.”

It turns out there’s a new Harry Potter book out–did you know this? By now, much to the chagrin of Harold Bloom and A. S. Byatt, the billion-selling boy wizard heptology is as beloved in high-culture circles as it is at summer camps and on school buses. Even the notoriously cranky Michiko Kakutani has called the 4,000-page Levicorpus corpus a “monumental spell-binding epic.”

In the vein of last month’s appreciation of Ingmar Bergman, schlockmeister, I’d like to take a minute to celebrate Harry Potter not as bildungsroman, modern mythology, political allegory, or cultural phenomenon. Instead, I read the Harry Potter books as enormously sophisticated Scooby-Doo mysteries.

Structurally, these aren’t fantasy novels at all. They’re fair-play mysteries in wizard’s clothing–novels with not just plots and characters and setpieces, but “solutions” as well. J. K. Rowling is justly praised for her elaborate and meticulous world-building, but I’m convinced that a lot of that endless detail is just there for standard detective-novel purposes: to distract, to confound, to envelop the real “clues” in a Cloak of Invisibility.

There’s a long tradition in American children’s literature of letting your young readers play along with the detectives, racing them toward a solution: think The Westing Game or Encyclopedia Brown. But Rowling seems to draw more from the Agatha Christie tradition: a multiplicity of colorful “suspects,” many with hidden agendas; red herrings galore; and a final drawing-room exposition-fest in which Hercule Dumbledore explains How It Was Done.

Just as in a murder mystery, the guilty party is always the least likely suspect. In the first four books (belated spoilers): Quirrell, not Snape, is after the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ginny, not Draco, has unlocked the Chamber of Secrets. Ron’s pet rat, not Sirius Black, betrayed Harry’s parents (an unlikely-suspect twist to rival The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None). The phony Mad-Eye Moody, not Karkaroff, is gaming the Triwizard Tournament.

Some of these reveals even involve the Hogwarts equivalent of a Scooby-Doo rubber mask coming off the crotchety caretaker: Quirrell’s turban, Pettigrew’s Animagus disguise, Barty Crouch, Jr.’s Polyjuice Potion. “Like, zoiks, Hermione–it was Old Man Milligrew all along!”

And Rowling does play fair–there are always clues hiding in plain sight, ones that even we mere Muggles could figure out, with a little ingenuity. Why is Barty Crouch’s name on the Marauder’s Map? What’s an anagram of “Tom Marvolo Riddle”? Who gave Neville that book about Gilly-weed? To Potter initiates, these convoluted-sounding questions are clues as obvious as the footprints under the window, the bloody knife and ripped bell-cord in the village squire’s study, the maid’s scream.

The later books deviate a bit more from the murder-mystery template, but there are still plenty of puzzles tossed to the reader–where did we see the locket and the diadem before? Who are “R.A.B.” and the Half-Blood Prince? What did Dumbledore’s cryptic dying words mean? Why does the barkeep have a goat? Even in the final book, with Harry and company already knee-deep, for once, in a classic heroes’ quest, looking for magical MacGuffins called “Horcruxes,” Rowling can’t resist tossing them a new mystery to sniff out, about the “Deathly Hallows” in Dumbledore’s past.

In the Deathly Hallows epilogue (more spoilers!) we never learn what grown-up Harry, Ron, and Hermione do for a living. I think that’s because they drive around Britain in a van solving mysteries. Each adventure ends with some Voldemort type ranting at the trio in noseless fury, “And I would have got away with it–if it weren’t for you pesky kids!”

I bet Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book–talk about a hard act to follow–will be a classic mystery of some kind. I don’t know if it’ll be a hard-boiled gumshoe case, a true-crime police procedural, a classic manor-house throwback, or what, but it’ll be a mystery novel. She’s been writing them all along, after all. It’s just that no one’s noticed.

Posted by Ken at 12:03 pm