The Atlantic

The Key to Writing a Mystery Is Asking the Perfect Question

The veteran author John Rechy discusses the powerful enigma of William Faulkner and the beauty of the unsolved narrative.

Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.


When I spoke to John Rechy, the author of After the Blue Hour, for this series, he took me through the first line of Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”—a stunning sentence in which nothing is wasted, and every word tells a story in itself. The opening is remarkable, Rechy explained, not only for its precision and economy but for the way its central mystery seduces us: What was Miss Emily hiding in her broken-down old house?

The narrative shape of Faulkner’s story—the gossipy inhabitants of a small town gradually uncover a hidden truth—is akin to Rechy’s own writing process. His books tend to begin mysteriously, he explained, with a feeling or image or situation he does not understand but feels compelled to. He discussed how he discovers his characters and story over the course of at least ten start-to-finish drafts—and why, in the end, he feels he’s done his job well if the final result leaves us with more questions than answers.

After the Blue Hour, like “A Rose for Emily,” has a mystery at its core

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