How Later Harry Potter Books Abandoned The Winning Detective Story Formula
You might have heard that the Harry Potter books have some suspiciously similar literary predecessors. "This proves plagiarism!" say some critics (or, it just proves that some concepts are very intuitive when you start with the premise of a wizarding school). Harry Potter also has a strikingly similar cinematic predecessor, in a 1985 movie written by future Potter director Chris Columbus.
The movie's about a trio of friends—two boys and a girl—in a British boarding school called Brompton. Our hero clashes with a snobbish student named Dudley and with a greasy-haired professor who teaches combat. Then, in a swerve, the trio find themselves investigating some kind of cult connected to the school, and occasionally fighting monsters (the monsters are hallucinations).
I'm not really accusing J.K. Rowling of ripping this movie off. I'm instead describing it because it's interesting that's it's so similar to Harry Potter despite not being a fantasy story at all. It's a detective story, called Young Sherlock Holmes.
And yet, when you think about, it's not so surprising that these two stories should share some elements. Because the Harry Potter books are detective stories too—or at least they start out that way. They're a lot of other things as well, but they're definitely a series of boarding school mysteries.
In the first book, the kids launch an investigation to find the identity of a thief. In the end, the man they suspected is innocent, and a seemingly innocent teacher they ignored is the culprit. That's kind of baby's first mystery story right there. Recently, last-minute villain reveals in kids' stories have become a bit of a hated cliché, thanks of a string of animated movies, but detective stories handle these reveals in more detail and with more flair than other kinds of stories, and in Harry Potter, the mysteries get more elaborate as the series continues.
Each of the next three books have the characters trying to solve some mystery, ending with a reveal so ludicrous and complicated that no one could have predicted it—and when I say ludicrous and complicated, those are compliments.
Many other series imitated Harry Potter. They copied the set pieces, they made kids move someplace and train together, they did their own versions of the Hogwarts houses. And yet the imitators never came up with plots as interesting because they never realized the Harry Potter books were detective stories. Oh, an imitator might throw in a surprise villain reveal, but again, there's a difference between "Ah hah! I was evil all along! Just, don't think to carefully about it" and "I'm the culprit, now let's spend several pages explaining all the clues and how this changes all previous scenes."
So, each of the first four books are detective stories. By Goblet of Fire, Harry duels a resurrected Voldemort, and that's still not the book's climax—the climax comes later, with the big mystery reveal, and then in the final pages, the book casually solves half a dozen red herring mysteries in quick succession. Then comes Order of the Phoenix.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix shifts the series in a bunch of ways, but here's the worst one: It drops the mystery format. The climax is a fight at a place literally called the Department of Mysteries, but there's no mystery to solve. Then, in the part of the story where we usually get a big explanation, Dumbledore takes Harry and says he's going to give him one, but there's nothing to explain (other than Harry maybe being fated to kill Voldemort, and which of us still needed to be told that?).
The final two books have their own questions that get answered (what's Draco up to, and the multi-book saga of what's up with Snape), but that didn't make them detective stories. There was no continuing on the upward trajectory of convoluted insanity that culminated in the Mad-Eye Moody reveal from Goblet of Fire—these revelations are less "WHAATT?!" and more "ohhh, well that makes sense." Possibly, the original mystery formula was unsustainable. Not every book could end with another seemingly nice person unexpectedly working for Voldemort.
Of course, the solution to any kind of dissatisfaction with Harry Potter is "for the love of God, read a different book." There are lots of good whodunits out there. But with all the influence the Harry Potter series had, I wish it convinced everyone to write whodunits that good, because a surprising number of adult mysteries barely qualify as mysteries even though they're explicitly marketed that way (which Harry Potter never was).
You pick up a book that's labeled a murder mystery. You hope for some seemingly impossible crime, then a final explanation and a surprise reveal of the guilty party. Instead, you get a story about a murderer and the hunt for him, which isn't really a mystery at all. Who did it? Oh, just some guy—he's not one of a list of suspects, he's just a killer to track down. How did he pull it off? Well, he went up to the victim and stabbed her 17 times—there was never any question about the method. Why did he do it? Because he's a killer of course, he enjoys killing, so don't go expecting any twist about what he stood to gain.
All of which is to say: Please send me your recommendations for good detective stories. Ones with surprising solutions, not procedurals about the chase. I don't know if I'm going to get another where the culprit was disguised as a pet rat the entire time, but I remain hopeful.
Top image: Warner Bros.