Do you remember how you felt reading And Then There Were None? Or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca? Or The Firm, Presumed Innocent, or A is For Alibi? Or any number of other brilliant and satisfying mystery stories out there for our reading pleasure?
The magnetic pull of a good mystery is so compelling that as I sat down to write this article, it was all I could do to keep at it instead of chucking it all aside to curl up with Dick Francis. But this is why I do it—why I write. The possibility of creating a little piece of that feeling for you, my readers, is what keeps me going and fuels my writing engine.
Let me count the ways…
What is it that we love so much about mystery fiction? I could write a book—and maybe someday I will. For now, I’d like to touch on just a few reasons I think we’re so tickled by suspense.
Brush with danger
Reading mysteries, thrillers, and other suspense fiction allows us to enjoy the illusion of danger with the assurance of safety. It’s like visiting a safari park where you can observe savage and frightening beasts, and even get quite close to them, while safeguarded behind barriers. Or like a roller coaster, experiencing the thrill of speed, twists, turns, and gut-wrenching drops from the protection of a secure and controlled car fastened to a time-tested track.
That’s what made Jurassic Park so terrifying—the suggestion that the security and control may be overtaken by utter chaos, the bars removed from the cage. But even while reading it (and gulping down Crichton’s delicious brand of horror) we knew we were safe.
The thrill of the hunt
Remember playing hide and seek as a kid? Whether you’re the hunter, or the hunted, there’s a tantalizing anticipation as the game progresses. Suspense hangs in the air, surprise waits around the corner, and each moment holds the possibility of triumph or defeat.
When we read a mystery, we become the hunter, tracking the clues, closing in on the target. In some types of suspense fiction, we identify with the hunted and sweat along with the hero as he runs to evade capture.
Either way, mysteries tease us with a vicarious thrill worth hunting for.
I think mysteries engage us as readers because we, in a very real way, become part of the experience. We are placed in the scenario and given the clues. We witness the events and are granted the opportunity to process, apply our own insights, and work out the solution alongside the detective or hero of the story.
The very nature of suspense fiction, with its built-in puzzles, is interactive.
The elemental battle
Mysteries tend to underline morals, as they center around the universal theme of good versus evil. We love the fun of the puzzle but, deep down, it’s the characters that draw us in and hold us. On some level, we align ourselves with the hero. He represents our smarter, stronger, faster, better selves.
Our efforts to make sense of the mystery reflects our efforts to make sense of life. In a global environment full of bustle and uncertainty, we can lose ourselves in another world, a world where good—in the form of justice—prevails over evil.
Forges a bond
Mysteries often transport us into another place or culture. Sometimes they involve learning about a profession or a historical period previously unknown. They can open up a new and fascinating world.
But in the end, they remind us that we’re all connected—that we share a universal desire to love and be loved, to be happy, to matter to another living person. By taking us through an exploration of motives and fundamental human drives, it underscores the bond we share and the commitment we have to one another, as a society.
A coping strategy
In my short story, The Wolf and Lamb, there’s a passage where Jennet’s uncle tells her this:
“We, none of us, get out of this world alive, Jennet, but the good Lord gives us to the very end to figure it out. The worst thing about a murderer is he takes away that chance for his victim.”
Mysteries help us cope with the idea of death and our own mortality. All of us will die someday—it’s part of the natural progression. A good murder mystery reminds us that it’s what we do while we’re alive that counts. Especially the way we treat others.
It’s no wonder we love them so much!
Why do you read mysteries? What are some of your favorites? I’d love to know! Please share with us in the comments section below.