Why Do We Read Mysteries?
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
In tackling this subject, I'm reminded of the excellent essay by Stephen King entitled "Why We Crave Horror Movies." In short, King's thesis is that horror movies help us keep our "gators fed." I agree. However, that particular essay, while brilliant, is also a bit self-serving (ah, the irony). Horror movies--and horror stories in general--tend to get a bad rap in civilized society, so it's no wonder that Mr. King, who made his career on the spine of the paperback release of first novel, Carrie, felt he needed to defend his cash cow.
Unlike the horror genre, mysteries have a fairly respectable reputation. From Dupin to Holmes to Marple to Luther, mysteries can be found in every grocery store, bookshelf, and streaming platform. New ones pop up every minute. They're as evergreen as the grass in a body farm.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why we love mysteries?
For me, my own journey as a mystery writer has helped to shine some light, however dim, on this particular corner of genre fiction.
When I was younger, I would run home after school, march down to the basement, and go thirty-seconds with the punching bag, wishing it were the class bully's face. When that didn't sufficiently feed my revenge-seeking demons, I'd invent stories about standing with swollen knuckles over the bully's defeated body as the fifth-grade girls swooned.
Once, when I was attempting to be a football star to improve my visibility, I wrote a short story about a bench warmer on the football team who scores the season-winning touchdown in the championship game. Then, on the ride home, as the whole team is chanting "We're number one!" the team bus flies off a cliff and bursts into flames. The story ends with an incredibly profound insight: "No one is invincible."
Without my permission, my teacher shared the story with her other classes. Including the bully. Who, yes, was the star running back of the football team.
At the time, I was too young to see the sharing as a compliment. Now I would be thrilled that someone, anyone, even a sworn enemy, was reading my work.
But back then, I was mortified.
The bully found me in the hallway afterward. He cornered me.
He said, "That was the best story I've ever read."
I'll never forget it. I had always thought he couldn't read.
You see, writing, I learned, is fighting back.
Stories give the little guy a voice.
The experience with the bully was just one on the snaking, moonlit road to becoming a mystery writer. The most influential moment was actually less dramatic: I was sitting at my desk in elementary school, doodling a skull and cross bones on my Trapper Keeper, when I decided, seemingly out of nowhere, that I was going to write stories for a living.
Why? I don't have a clue.
But over the years, I've come up with a few theories.
The simplest first: the very first story I ever wrote was a mystery, a Sherlock Holmes rip off. My only explanation is that I had been influenced by some the books I was reading at the time, namely the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
But it's not like I didn't read other things too. As a paperboy, I read the newspaper every single morning. So why didn't I want to become a journalist?
It's because there are deeper, more fundamental reasons for why we gravitate toward mysteries. After all, life is a mystery. Inquisitive minds are constantly plagued by questions such as "Why are we here? Why are we conscious? Why do we die? Why is Star Wars so popular? Why? Why? Why?"
Unfortunately, in life, we don't get many answers to the big questions. People try. Priests and paleontogolists and politicians and primatologists and proctologists, they all try. But they always come up short.
In mysteries though, we do get answers. We get to join the characters in pursuit of the truth--and when the writer doesn't deliver, we grab our boxing gloves.
I've also come to suspect that my love of mysteries has had something to do with the dawning realization that real life is, well, kinda boring.
We spend so much of our precious seconds on this earth sleeping, brushing our teeth, eating food that's supposed to be good for us, changing diapers, answering emails, blah, blah, blah blah blah, so much time that it's quite rare when we actually get to go on a bonafide adventure. As a father of young children, adventure for me these days usually consists of a trip to the grocery store. Will they have the bread I like? Will the lines be long? Will I discover a new microbrew?
But even when I was younger, adventure was sneaking into a church to shoot a scene for a short film--and then getting caught by the pastor and told I was "welcome anytime." Not exactly a crucible.
Thus, mystery is escapism. When I write, I get to escape the banality of everyday life without risking a collapse of the wonderful, insanely unlikely banality that makes us want to live a longer life. Even better, I get to pass this excitement onto you, my readers; I get to give you the chance to escape to a world where things are always exciting, where even a trip to the grocery store (see a A Grave, Twice Cold) can be a life-threatening test of resolve.
For that reason, I much prefer to write about ordinary people instead of cops and detectives. My cops and detectives, the people who live this stuff in real life, sit in the back seat while the ordinary folks seek adventure. I love it when teachers or kids with autism or moms or bloggers get sucked into extraordinary circumstances, have to confront darkness, and ultimately prevail.
So, again, why mysteries?
After years of introspection, the answer has never been more obvious. Mysteries are the vehicles through which we get to sit in the driver's seat and go off-roading whenever we damn well please.
We get to live vicariously through the characters. We get to be inside their heads and look through the windshields of their eyes at a confusing world as they try to make sense of it. And since we know that they'll prevail, we stick with them. Through long series. We're loyal.
We get to sit back and watch from the safety of our couches as the characters struggle to impose order in their chaotic universes, places where the good folks get to talk back instead of holding their tongues and get to throw punches instead of letting the stresses stew.
And perhaps, even better, we get to make things right. We get to make sure the bullies stop getting victim's blood on their shoes--and instead, go face down in a puddle of their own.