Saturday, April 7, 2007
Why We Read This Stuff
David Skibbins (Guest Blogger)
Scratch almost any mystery writer and you'll find a voracious reader of the genre. My collection is now threatening to fill a forth bookcase. What keep drawing us back to these stories of 'murder most foul'?
We've read the usual explanations: We like a world where justice is delivered. We are fascinated with evil, particularly if it does not triumph. We get intellectually challenged to solve the crime before the protagonist does. I think all these are true, but in themselves, they are not completely satisfying as an answer. There is a factor that I never considered before actually having to write my own mysteries, the Grace Under Fire Factor.
After my initial success winning the St. Martin's Best Traditional Mystery Contest with Eight of Swords, I thought my next book, High Priestess, would be a shoo-in. Then I got the call from Ruth Cavin, my editor at St. Martin’s. "Well, David, you have two choices. You could start over with a new project, or you will have to do a major revision on this one." Ugh! One of the things she said was that I was too distant from my protagonist, Warren Ritter.
I sat with that a long time. Finally I realized what she meant. I needed to increase the danger, and threat to my hero. David the Nice Guy (that part of me who doesn't want to hurt people or cause more suffering in the world) was killing my novel. I needed to make things continually worse for Warren, and to feel the growing menace of that in my bones in order to write about it from the inside. That would make the book compelling.
And this is what makes good mysteries so gripping to read. It's not just the danger, but it's how the protagonist handles increasing levels of hazard, terror and risk. In our ordinary lives, risk is usually limited to a spurt of momentary terror that arises when a truck cuts us off on the freeway, or the twisting anxiety of going in to the boss's office to apply for a raise. But the intrepid characters in the mysteries we read face physical assault, exhaustion, emotional trauma, isolation, ostracism and death. They go into a land far more perilous than we can imagine.
And they face all that peril with courage, some sort of integrity and valor. Almost always it's the heroes and heroines we remember most, not the villains they face or the victims they seek justice for. These brave men and women live in our imaginations as beacons of what the human spirit is capable of. And they are great role models; flawed, eccentric, foolish at times and very imperfect. Not Gods and Goddesses, but folks not all that different from us, except that they are endowed with an indomitable spirit for discovering the truth. It is their love of the truth, and their courage to go down any 'mean street' in order to follow the path towards justice, that endears these folks to us.
David Skibbins is the author of The Tarot Card Mystery Series. The Star, the latest in the series, has just come out.