The Female Carries the Mystery

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I’ve got a new book coming from W.W. Norton in November. It’s a novel called 36 Righteous Men. If you followed last year the series on this blog called “Report from the Trenches,” you know the details of the huge crash this book took, midstream in its writing, and of my six months of nonstop hell trying to regroup, restructure, and reanimate it.

Barbara Stanwyck as the fatal female in “Double Indemnity”

The concept that saved the day came from Shawn Coyne’s editorial notes:

The female carries the mystery.

This is a helluva deep subject and one that, even now, I have only the sketchiest and most tenuous handle on. Bear with me please. I’m gonna try, in the next few posts, to plunge into this topic and see if we can extract a kernel or two of wisdom.

What does it mean, “The female carries the mystery?”

It’s not hard to see in a movie like Chinatown, where the character of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is literally the woman of mystery, or in Double Indemnity, where Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) fulfills the same narrative purpose.

In both films—and just about every other film noir or detective story you or I can think of—the female lead has a secret she is hiding from the male lead (and from the world in general, including, at least partially, herself.)

The story is about finding out that secret.

Only when that secret is revealed does the movie deliver its knockout dramatic and thematic punch.


She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!



I’m rotten, Walter. Rotten to the heart.

But the idea that the female carries the mystery can be applied, I believe, even to novels and movies that literally have no female characters.

In Moby Dick, the female is the ocean.

The unplumbed, unknowable depths of the sea, into which the whale plunges, taking Ahab with him.

The eternal, unfathomable sea is the female.

In Seven Samurai, the flooded rice fields are the female. They are the well of fertility, the source of life. They are in fact what all the heroism and slaughter were about. They were the stakes of the story. They were the mystery.

Remember the final scene of Kurosawa’s all-time classic, when the villagers, to the beat of the communal tom-toms, replant their now-preserved fields while the surviving samurai can only watch and move on? That’s the mystery revealed.

Even in a story without human female characters, like Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” the female still carries the mystery

In my book, 36 Righteous Men, the central female character is a defrocked rabbi named Rachel Davidson.

In the first version of the novel—the one that crashed—I had Rachel indeed bearing the mystery (in other words, she knew all the details of the occult understory) but I had her trying deliberately and passionately to reveal this mystery.

Huge mistake.

Only when Shawn pointed out the error was I able to regroup and reconceive the story, at least as far as Rachel was concerned.

The change I made was to make her carry the mystery and hang onto it for dear life.

In other words, I turned every scene with Rachel on its head. Instead of having her seek to reveal, I had her seek to conceal.

It worked.

It made the other primary characters—two NYPD homicide detectives, a man and woman—dig deeper and harder. It made them do real detective work. It tripled the power of Rachel, and it supercharged the villain, whom Rachel was now covering for instead of trying to reveal.

I’ve been working on a new book for the past year—a totally different story, in another century and another genre. But the principle

 The female carries the mystery

remains foremost in my working mind. I have stayed hyperconscious (and conscientious) at every stage—conception, construction, and the scene-by-scene writing—of who the “female” is, what mystery she carries, and how I can maintain that mystery and enhance it through Act One, Act Two, and Act Three to build to its maximum emotional impact in the climax.







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