Striking Gold

In a world awash in forensic details, a writer who wishes to include mystery elements in the story can forget a basic lesson from the days of yore. DNA is good, ViCAP is good, hacker tricks are good, but such technical advances tend to appeal to us because we are too dumb to understand that stuff. They serve as points of instruction, if you will. Yet myths and other tales from the distant past found other ways to tantalize. At the heart of many of them was an object of great power.

These days readers won’t accept a protagonist who meets a mermaid holding a golden ring, but you can use the ring. Anything unique and valuable has an intrinsic fascination. Such objects serve as touchstones in our subconscious, relying on a more primal urge. If a woman hungers for a golden amulet, we instinctually understand why she could go mad in the pursuit of it. 

So how does that notion work practically? Let’s say a contractor steam-shoveling the foundation of a new house uncovers a skeleton. By all means bring on the crime technicians. But if one bony finger is adorned with a gemstone with obscure runes engraven on it, the subconscious lust within us for such a talisman commands our attention. Who is this person who would possess such an object? What are those runes all about? Why didn’t the killer seize the gemstone?

You heighten the reader’s powers of concentration with such an age-old feature. The pragmatic detective will try to link the object to the slain victim’s nearest and dearest. When the divorced husband claims to know nothing about it, his ignorance causes outrage. You fool, how could you not know about the stone? You can devise an expert in runes who studies the object and comes up with an obscure phrase: At midnight rises the chariot, or whatever you like, as long as it can be explained when the proper context is finally provided. As new clues turn up, the investigator can keep asking how they relate to the gem. 

In this era of zoned to a cell phone, we have merely submerged our primitive desires. In everyone’s heart lurks the wish for a rich relative who will die and leave us a pot of gold. Layer on the cool tech, but you may find that what the reader remembers after putting down the book is the scrawl on the gemstone.

Exercise: Finding a suitable object of rabid desire is easy. Just start reading a body of myths that spark your interest. Christian lore, Irish lore, Egyptian lore, are filled with stories of Aladdin types. Once you find an idea that intrigues you, think of how the talisman can be fitted into your book as a twist: the secret underlying the glow.

“The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.” —H. P. Lovecraft

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.