Is it a Puzzle or a Mystery?

Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker wrote an illuminating piece about the Enron Scandal called ‘Open Secret: Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information.’ The article is well worth reading in its own right; it makes several of the points Ms. Rowling is trying to drive home about the absurdity of our shared confidence in the news media and what is “public knowledge.” I bring it up here in the context of Harry Potter speculation, though, because of a distinction Mr. Gladwell makes between what is a puzzle and what is a mystery. The question I want to ask you all is: Is the Harry Potter conundrum a puzzle or a mystery?

Here is the relevant section of the longer New Yorker article:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

The distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11th to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11th a mystery, though, you’d have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda. You’d want to send the counterterrorism team from the C.I.A. on a golfing trip twice a month with the counterterrorism teams from the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. and the Defense Department, so they could get to know one another and compare notes.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

If you sat through the trial of Jeffrey Skilling, you’d think that the Enron scandal was a puzzle. The company, the prosecution said, conducted shady side deals that no one quite understood. Senior executives withheld critical information from investors. Skilling, the architect of the firm’s strategy, was a liar, a thief, and a drunk. We were not told enough—the classic puzzle premise—was the central assumption of the Enron prosecution.

“This is a simple case, ladies and gentlemen,” the lead prosecutor for the Department of Justice said in his closing arguments to the jury:

Because it’s so simple, I’m probably going to end before my allotted time. It’s black-and-white. Truth and lies. The shareholders, ladies and gentlemen, . . . buy a share of stock, and for that they’re not entitled to much but they’re entitled to the truth. They’re entitled for the officers and employees of the company to put their interests ahead of their own. They’re entitled to be told what the financial condition of the company is.
They are entitled to honesty, ladies and gentlemen.

But the prosecutor was wrong. Enron wasn’t really a puzzle. It was a mystery.

If the difficulty in solving the questions we have about what will happen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is consequent to our not having enough information, call it ‘Bin Laden Syndrome,’ then it is a “puzzle.” If the problem we’re wrestling with is too much information and having to find the answer in the haystack or assembling the information correctly, then it is a mystery.

The word almost always used to describe our situation and the sort of book Ms. Rowling is writing is “mystery.” It is a mystery and it isn’t.

Truth be told, I think it’s more of a puzzle.

No doubt we will slap our foreheads at the clues we missed when we learn at last what Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Snape have been up to all these years. The clues revealed in the finale via hindsight will be the facts and pointers that we didn’t pick up on Harry’s peripheral vision or that we misunderstood. We will admire Rowling’s genius in playing fair, that is, by giving us the information we needed to solve the problem, and we will be surprised once again at our own inability to have figured out what, post-revelation, seems to have had to have been obvious to the clear-thinking reader.

But the narrative misdirection consequent to the stories all being told by the house-elf with mini-cam over Harry’s shoulder (or from the figurative camera within the scar?) masks the fact that she really isn’t playing fair. We’ll never know and cannot possibly figure out what Voldemort, Snape, and Dumbledore have been planning and doing since VoldeWar One until they tell us. Harry, albeit the Chosen One and a “big player” in the drama, has no idea what the real actors are about – and neither do we because these actors are all off-stage except for their several cameos in Harry’s Hogwarts life.

The narrative drive to the stories may be each year’s “mystery” (e.g., what Draco is up to and whether he has become a Death eater), but the super-story of Death eaters versus the Order of the Phoenix and Snape’s true loyalties is a puzzle to which the readers are given few clues, none of which are conclusive evidence. It’s a great read and compelling, edifying alchemical drama. But it’s not very satisfying as a mystery, per se, because of the severe restriction of information to the teenage boy’s point of view.

I look forward to reading what you think. Mystery — or puzzle?


  1. Something is funky with the WordPress blog today and I am getting notes from friends saying their messages are not going through on this thread or others. Please write me at with your comments if you would like me to post your thoughts.

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  2. From Chris Holm:

    Hi John,

    I disagree with the definitions given for puzzle and mystery.

    With a puzzle, you have all of the pieces you need for the solution, whether the puzzle be a jigsaw, Chinese box, or a bent piece of iron and a loop of cord. What is required to solve a puzzle is patience, skill, obsessiveness, or cleverness. The puzzle is by definition confusing, and it can be obfuscated by adding extra pieces to the box. But with patience, skill, or cleverness, it can still be solved and the “red herring” pieces put aside.

    I believe 9/11 was a puzzle: agencies had all of the pieces, but they were so concealed by human and technological limitations and turf wars that it would have been virtually impossible to assemble the pieces together. It was a puzzle that was not humanly solvable.

    Bin Laden’s location is both a puzzle and a mystery: a puzzle only because we basically know where he is, and with an exhaustive search of a 500,000 square mile area we could find him. However, his location is a mystery because key information is missing which would easily take us to him, the search grid described being humanly impossible to accomplish. It’s an unsolvable puzzle, but perhaps a solvable mystery.

    A mystery is, well, mysterious. Parts and pieces of the problem are missing or kept secret, and is generally not solvable due to insufficient information. Mysteries may never be known. Example: where is Jimmy Hoffa, or how is Christ in the Eucharist?

    Do I think all mysteries are unsolvable? No. Thousands of scientific discoveries are made without sufficient information because of intuition, hunch, or luck. The light bulb clicks on, the missing piece is no longer missing, and what had been a mystery has now become a puzzle with all of the pieces put together.

    The good mystery writer plants the evidence within the pages so that the reader *thinks* that they could have solved the problem before it is reveled by the author. A tawny owl here, a locket there, a throwaway meeting of a stranger in a pub. In reality though, there is no logical reason for a reader to “connect the dots” and tell himself afterward that he should have known whodunnit.

    Humans become overconfident that we *could have* solved the mystery if we had only been a little smarter or cleverer. This is due to the hindsight bias, which is that we tend to view what has already happened as inevitable, while quickly forgetting all of the possibilities of what could have been. It’s the reason most people think they are better investors than they really are.

    Harry Potter is a mystery. We don’t yet have all of the information we need. (Who could have known that Riddle’s diary in Chamber of Secrets was a horcrux before a horcrux was described?) Sure we can speculate, deduce, and maybe come up with a hunch of what will happen. JKR herself has said that there are probably 2 or 3 people who will figure it out ahead of time.

    When I read the final page of Deathly Hallows, I won’t be slapping my forehead and saying “of course!” I’ll be glad to have finished a satisfying read, and I’ll be savoring the author’s creativity for a long time.

    Chris Holm

  3. Arabella Figg says

    I don’t agree with Treverton’s definition of mystery as applied to Iraq. The pieces were there, but the unpleasant ones were tossed from the box all along, leaving the jigsaw puzzle incomplete to adequately and successfully work with. This pattern continues.

    I believe the Harry Potter story is both a puzzle and a mystery—mysterious puzzle, puzzling mystery. Rowling makes deft use of both red herrings and MacGuffins, definitions below:

    A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story.
    The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term “MacGuffin” and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “[W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin.’ It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers.” (Wikipedia)

    Red Herring
    1. Any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue (One Look Dictionary Search)
    2. Misleading clue: something introduced, e.g. into a crime or mystery story, in order to divert attention or mislead (Encarta World English Dictionary)

    This is an interesting topic and I feel both you, John, and Chris have pieces of the mysterious jigsaw puzzle and viewing it from different sides of the table (and the table this jigsaw puzzle is on has about a hundred different sides!).

    The Voldemort diary issue Chris raises is a great example–for years I scratched my head wondering how the past Voldemort of the diary could have known that Harry defeated him as an infant. We couldn’t have possibly understood this without the horcrux revelation. I guess this makes Riddle’s diary a puzzle (withheld information) but the making of horcurxes–implanting parts of one’s living soul in other objects‚Äîmystery in the purest sense (“sometimes the question itself cannot be answered”–Traverton). I doubt Rowling will ever explain exactly how this is done, leaving it to the acceptance of ‚Äúmagical device.”

    Because of her incredible skill with narrative misdirection employing McGuffins and red herrings (inspiring years and essays of counter speculation), Rowling will surprise us all. It’s the truly great writer that so deeply engages us, leaving us breathless until the end—and maybe with a lingering touch of mystery.
    Got to see to the kitties,
    Arabella Figg

  4. Arabella Figg says

    After my previous comment, I continued to ponder the puzzle/mystery question and realized there’s a bigger picture here.

    Dumbledore, in several places, has repeatedly told Harry that the purity of love within him, through the sacrifice of his mother Lily, is what has enabled Harry, with this “lingering protection,” to overcome Voldemort in their confrontations.

    DD tells Harry during the OP debriefing, “You would be protected by an ancient magic of which [LV] knows, which he despises, and which he has always, therefore, underestimated—to his cost. > There is a room in the Department of Mysteries that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there. It is the power held within that room that you possess in such quantities and which Voldemort has not at all….Voldemort could not bear to reside in a body [Harry’s] so full of the force he detests. In the end, it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you.” (All quotes from OP, The Lost Prophecy)

    So, in my mind, this whole series is a grand mystery, because what is more mysterious than that love defeats evil? Physical power, material force, reasoned and moral persuasion cannot defeat the aims of an evil heart. Only love can do so, as demonstrated at the cross.

    In Harry Potter, we have a nested Russian doll–a mystery which contains puzzles and lesser mysteries, which contain clues, McGuffins and red herrings, not to mention a ripping story.

    Love, that greatest mystery, that greatest power, that great overcomer. . . .


  5. TheHarryinMe says

    I have to say that the definition of a puzzle, as presented in the article, lacks the essential need for all the pieces to be present. Sure, any puzzle may be solved by putting the pieces together, but it is only 100 percent clear to the overall picture once assembled. If you are missing only a few pieces, you usually get the underlying meaning of the puzzle but without the absolute picture.

    A puzzle, therefore, need not have withheld information – that is, those missing pieces. A puzzle is something solvable to a given general sense of accuracy, depending on the information given, but can proceed incomplete. Harry Potter, per demonstration of analysis, falls under the puzzle category here because it displays all the necessary information to complete at least the outline of the masterpiece without revealing the ending until the last piece is in place.

    As to a mystery, I believe the definition presented in the article also falls short. A mystery is a situation in which all the information is present, but none of it is revealed in entirety. To use the example of Iraq, is was a mystery because there were so many possible outcomes and because the factors playing to each possible outcome were evident but only to a given perspective. There may have been information on the location of leaders in hiding, like Saddam Hussein, but where that information was located and how it was revealed are where the mystery arises.

    To connect back to Harry Potter, the mystery lies in the fact that all the information is present throughout the story but – due to narrative misdirection and the third-person, limited omniscient perspective of the storytelling – we are unable to know the thoughts of the other characters. By connecting the dots, we can assume that Dumbledore is up to something in Half-Blood Prince, but to know exactly his purpose and intent requires speculation on our behalf. Therefore, the mystery arises from the fact that we have the information, and much of it stares right back, but we are unable to see it due to the cleaver craft of J. K. Rowling.

    Bringing these two ideas together, clearly Harry Potter contains elements of both puzzle and mystery, as Mr. Granger (or John, whichever you know him by) has stated. The puzzle side to the epic tale is one where we have the clues in front of us; the fact that Harry Potter follows an alchemical theme of Great Literature tells us as much. With this frame to build off of, it is evident that all the pieces to the puzzle are in plain sight book to book, if only with a bit of a keen eye. As Harry Potter grows book to book, the plot thickens but the framework stays its formulaic course, and thus the puzzle is fitting the presented facts to the overall plot line of the story.

    The mystery in Harry Potter, then, arises year to year as the facts are revealed about and from each character. Sometimes, the mystery extends from one year to the next, all the while holding true to the assumption that all the information is contained in some character – usually, as it seems, Voldemort or Dumbledore – but is unknown to the hero. The overarching puzzle to the story may be explained by the systematic framework J. K. Rowling built upon, but the true, definite ending may only be guessed at from this perspective; from a mystery standpoint, however, we must first solve the puzzle behind everything – in essence, the plot – in order to apply character motivations and understand the core of the story.

    So, to summarize my comments, I believe Harry Potter – as you said Mr. Granger – is both a puzzle and a mystery in certain respects. However, I believe the definition of a puzzle and mystery is more sharply defined than in the The New Yorker article, and are key to developing a better and firmer understanding to what the story really achieves.

    Humbly presented,


  6. pullthestring says

    This was a very interesting post, John, and i loved that you used Mr. Gladwell’s essay to create your argument about puzzles and mysteries. Personally, I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the best American writers alive right now.

    I think it is difficult to compare the mystery/puzzle argument as it applies to real life situations such as 9/11 and Iraq with the argument as it applies to Harry Potter. After all, we are at the mercy of the author in the latter. Even if we did have all the pieces we need to figure out certain problems, we wouldn’t necessarily know it.

    in addition, the definition of “mystery” is somewhat vague anyway. There is certainly a difference between Holmes-esque detective mysteries and real life mysteries like Christ’s divinity.

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