I’ve been reading The Secret State by Peter Hennessy and I was struck by the differing definitions of Secrets and Mysteries used to describe what security and intelligence services know and what its very hard for them to know. Here are just a few initial thoughts on the impact of the difference on writing thriller and detective stories/adventures.
Secrets are things (facts) that can be found out – through skill, effort and chance.
Mysteries are things (intentions) it is extremely hard to discover – except by having sources really close to those making decisions.
Secrets tend to be hard facts which are hidden or concealed. They are clues. The range of a weapon, the money paid into a character’s bank account or the recipe for a drug.
Mysteries are things that can’t be found out – if the enemy will use the weapon to start a war, if the character will do what they’ve been paid to or if the drug will be used for good or evil.
Secrets can be found out by investigation, by spying, by surveillance satellites, listening devices and a whole bag of other tricks.
Mysteries may be discovered by having someone close to the character who holds them in their head.
Secrets (unless red herrings or lies) tend to be concrete and immutable things.
Mysteries can be turned into Secrets by methods both believable and unbelievable: a confidant, pillow talk, telepathy, truth drugs, mind reading and preternaturally competent profilers.
Secrets give you lots of clues that you can reveal to characters and readers.
Mysteries are what keep them guessing to the climax of the story as to what will happen next.