Why Mysteries Continue to Attract
Sheila Kindellan-Sheehan is a Canadian writer. ‘If you like John Grisham or are a fan of TV’s Law & Order, you won’t be able to put one of her books down.’ ~Brenda O’Farrell, The Gazette
Mortality isn’t a choice or an option. That’s good news for mystery writers. Today, every form of print is overshadowed by the accelerating run of technology with innovations like the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Kindle and Kobo. Large publishing houses and independents are shrinking or closing. Booksellers like Borders in the U.S. who fell behind the electronic pace, closed, or are reducing their book space and turning themselves into boutiques like Chapters in Canada. The mystery genre has not only survived these dramatic changes but has become the most popular form of fiction today. Any good agent will tell you the competition in the genre is fierce.
The question is “how”?
Mysteries had to earn their way into the print world. Although the genre is very old and heavily rooted in religious texts, Arabic, Chinese and English literature, it was the poor cousin of mainstream fiction and a guilty, almost secretive pleasure. When such notables as D.H. Lawrence and W.H Auden stepped forward, followed by a host of others, the genre exploded onto the literary scene and has even picked the pace. Today, mystery writers are respected for their distinctive voices and their prose as well as their stories.
A second question might well be “why”?
Why do we take up fiction that explores the underbelly of the chaos all around us, in particular, murder most foul? Mortality is the answer. Nobody gets out alive. Death is our common bond, fascinating and frightening. Humans are drawn to death, because we want to know what it’s all about. Like the brain, there are tones of information about its working, but nobody understands it. Mystery readers can watch and judge the journey of crime from the fatal blow to the carnage to the day of reckoning, all from the safe distance of a page without spilling a drop of blood.
We read to see how a certain individual played a part in his own demise, and we take a lesson from his errors. We judge, we track the path of death and evaluate the loss. We see the collateral damage of a single death, all as silent observers. In our mysteries we find a moral order. When goodness and evil collide, we know that goodness most often prevails. There are no logic holes in mysteries. There is an assuring catharsis in that knowledge. We find comfort in the ‘complete’ story this genre offers up. In our fiction, justice and law are bonded.
The advantage for the reader is that while he is in the thick of death and feels its reverberations, he can close his book and walk away unscathed. After all, it’s only a story. Satisfied, the reader can turn to other things. Looking for justice in life often leaves us in despair and dismay. Life, unfortunately, serves up pieces of its puzzle, saving the key for last.
Death may be our fate but that doesn’t stop us from learning as much as we can to stave off the inevitable. The mystery genre is a good teacher for that deception. We learn afresh that clichés still apply. When you find yourself in serious trouble, silence is golden. Self-incrimination is like a pothole - you might be in it before you see it. We know that interrogation rooms are purposely claustrophobic with little mics above us, eye-level and under the table. Investigators are never on our side and they can lie to us to get at the truth. Don’t give yourself away with body language because another investigator is in the next room video-taping your every move. Most important, we know about our rights, we know about judges and juries. The irony, of course, is most mystery readers will never find themselves in an interrogation room, but if they ever did, well, they are forewarned and ready!
Ironically, John Updike composed his own eulogy. He wrote, ‘For life’s a shabby subterfuge,/ And death is real, and dark and huge.’
In the end, mysteries are all about death. No one can deny the fact that every mystery has a dead body and that’s the reason we buy the books. The setting, the characters and the plot, no matter how much we praise them, all support the ‘body.’ Way back, nobody believed guys read Playboy for the articles. The fact is, death attracts us.
Perhaps mysteries, rather than acting as escapes from reality and interesting puzzles, are really preparatory meetings with death, softening the blow, helping us to feel less frightened, providing us with an aura of power while familiarizing us with the truth of our demise. In this genre, the shock of a single death demands attention and justice and sympathy. It has an audience. For a time we can forget that Updike was probably right when he said that death was real and dark and huge and mattered only to the one who died.
That might be the reason why mysteries have formed a bond with their readers that is almost pedestrian. Since there has been no news about a change in the status of our mortality, we’ll continue to buy our mysteries and stay up till two in the morning reading them because we can’t put them down. In the meantime, if some techie uploads and solves the death problem, I’ll definitely make some changes to my blog.
For more information about Sheila and her books visit her website and find her on Facebook.