Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mysteries: What's the Point?

Merry Jones (Guest Blogger)

Not long ago, a friend asked me, “Why do you write mysteries? Why don’t you write something useful that helps people? A memoir, for example. Or a ‘how-to’?”

A how-to? A memoir? I was immediately defensive. People read mysteries, I explained. They like them. They get entertained by them. Mysteries are fun. But, deep down, I questioned the value of my work.

See, it takes six months to a year for me to write a suspense novel. During that time, I live with the characters as much, if not more, than I live with the three-dimensional, breathing people in my family and community. In fact, I often lose touch with the breathers, becoming lost in the pages of a pretend world, known by no one but myself, for weeks, even months at a time. It’s lonely. It’s difficult. So, my friend’s question jolted me: Why do I do this? And, even though I brushed off the question at the time, I found myself grappling with it for days.

After all, the world has lots of problems. Somebody should write books about how to fix them. How to manage time, relationships, money. How to lower carbon dioxide emissions. How to make the world safe for future generations. How to age gracefully or lose weight or do embroidery or make soufflés. What good are mysteries when there are so many vital issues to discuss? I began to feel that my efforts, my books were a waste of my time and everyone else’s.

I thought back to when I began to write the Zoe Hayes series. I’d been writing non-fiction and humor for years. But I hadn’t written a mystery. And I remembered how it started. My husband was sick. In fact, he was gravely ill with esophageal cancer.

Esophageal cancer is usually deadly. The doctor told us, Don’t go online, don’t read about it; you’ll only get scared. My husband was stoic about his situation, but I was not. I remember sitting in his hospital room, frantically watching monitors measure his heartbeat and respiration, staring at tubes that took fluids into and out of him, and hearing him tell me in a morphine haze, “Go home.”

What? I was insulted. Didn’t he need me by his side?

“You’re not doing any good sitting here,” he went on. “Go home. Do something besides worry. Write a book.”

He insisted. Repeatedly. He even told me he couldn’t sleep while I was staring at him. So, finally, I went home. And, as he’d told me to, I wrote a book. It was, in a way, a memoir, in that it was about impending death and violence that struck innocent people without warning. About unexpected, unanticipated upheaval that struck suddenly, while unsuspecting victims were walking babies in the park or fixing dinner. Living their lives. The villain, I realize now, was personified as a serial killer, but might as well have been esophageal cancer.

When my husband was sick, I retreated into the world of The Nanny Murders, finding solace in a world where a psychotic sadistic serial killer was less threatening than my actual reality. I was taking control over a fictional world, since I had no control over the real one. And, it occurred to me, that was why I wrote mysteries. That might also be why people read them.

The sorry truth is that life throws its unexpected twists. We are hit, unexpectedly, with diseases or car accidents or natural disasters or job loss or death. In life, we are all waiting for a shoe to drop or a lightning bolt to strike, and we never know how or if we’ll survive.

But a mystery—a mystery provides readers with a safe paradigm for actual life. Readers know that the unexpected, unavoidable catastrophe will strike. We know that the characters’ lives will turn upside down. But, unlike in real life, we know that, by the end of the book, order will be restored. Good will trump evil. And—if it’s a series—we know that, no matter what, the main character will survive.

Mysteries provide a way for us to experience vicarious tension, danger, and violence without really being in peril. And they provide something else, as well: Between the onset of the upheaval and the final resolution, there are plenty of pages in which the characters have to survive, managing their relationships, handling their finances, raising their children, aging gracefully, minimizing their carbon dioxide emissions, even making the occasional soufflé. And so, in a sense, the mystery is a how-to book. It shows how to survive, even in the face of events that are uncontrollable, unpredictable and life-threatening.

Fortunately, my husband survived his cancer. It’s been over several years. But my fear remains, so I still write mysteries, finding escape in a world where the worst of criminals lurk and darkness prevails. But the thing is, in that world, I have complete and absolute control.

Merry Jones is the author of eleven books, including the Zoe Hayes mystery series: THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, and THE NANNY MURDERS (St. Martin's). She lives outside Philadelphia. Website:


Dru said...

Excellent blog. Thanks Merry. That is the exact reason I love and read mysteries. I know there is going to be turmoil in between daily activities but at the end as you said goodness will prevail.

pps..I'm glad your hubby survived his cancer.

paul lamb said...

I think you've nailed why mysteries are such a successful genre. It's a simple fact, easily observed, that while people may clamor for instructions on how to solve their problems, they rarely follow such instructions. A book giving answers (as though any of us have them) may sound like a noble idea, but if the answers are not enacted, it's a lot of wasted effort.

I suspect it's not answers we writers should give but questions. If we can get readers to ask themselves questions, maybe they can puzzle through to answers that will work for them.

I happen to think that Moby Dick asks all the right questions (even more than a century later), and I can understand why many people devote their lives to studying that bit of fiction that doesn't give anyone any answers.

Thanks for writing this post.

paul lamb said...

also, you look lovely in that photo! (Just sayin!)