Here is a mystery in itself: Why do so many of us read so many mysteries? Googling the topic, I discovered that a high school student had asked a similarly phrased question — perhaps in search of information for an essay assignment — at the eNotes.com website. It drew lots of thoughtful responses, including a link to the scholarly paper “Why Use Detective Fiction in the AP Classroom” by Eric J. Pollock and Hye Won Chun.
Solving the mystery
So, what are the reasons for this compulsion? Here are some conclusions based on Pollock and Chun's insights, comments posted at eNotes, an interview with mystery writer Sue Grafton and my own ruminations.
Readers participate in mystery novels. Mysteries inspire “active” reading in which readers interact with the text, seeking clues and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This is intellectually challenging.
Mystery novels are therapeutic. Readers gain a sense of control from helping to solve mysteries. It gives us a sense of control, order and closure.
Mysteries are strong on action. While some critics might say that characterization in mysteries is secondary to plot, many of us might disagree and say that isn't true of compelling mystery novels. Characterization and plotting both propel the novels of great mystery writers, such as Stephen L. Carter, Margaret Coel, Tana French, Karin Fossum, Sue Grafton, P.D. James, Dennis Lehane, the late Ralph M. McInerny, Sara Paretsky, Walter Mosley and Ian Vasquez. By allowing us to understand well-defined characters, these authors help readers understand the reasons behind their actions.
Readers develop relationships with characters.Some mystery writers, such as Vasquez, return to familiar locales from novel to novel but lose appealing central characters along the way. Their plots make repeat performances impossible. This can leave readers mourning favorite characters, such as Riley James in Vasquez’s Mr. Hooligan, who is a likable amalgam of charm, kindness, good looks and keen intelligence despite his criminal career.
But many mysteries are written as series in which the same characters survive from one scrape to another. As Pollock and Chun note in their essay, “Why Use Detective Fiction in the AP Classroom,” this allows readers to revisit characters for whom they feel an “affinity.”
It seems to me that many of us enjoy getting into the heads of the fictional detectives with whom we spend time. We grow to know them so well that we might even like to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with some. We know who would be welcoming as well as who would be distant.
Visiting with fictional favorites
I know from repeated visits to their fictional worlds that Professor Roger Knight of Ralph McInerny’s Notre Dame mysteries or Father John O’Malley of Margaret Coel’s Wind River Reservation series would respond warmly to a knock on the door.
But despite being cordial, many of my favorite mystery characters would be coolly reserved. That includes Kinsey Milhone (Grafton) with whom I would enjoy sharing peanut butter and dill pickle sandwiches, a surprisingly tasty culinary oddity that pops up in each of Grafton's alphabetically-titled mysteries.
Inspector Adam Dalgliesh (James) of Scotland Yard and private investigator V.I. Warshawski (Paretsky) would radiate a similar professional detachment designed to protect them from the irritations, aches and deepest pains of social interaction. In contrast, Dublin undercover detectives Frank Mackey and Cassie Maddox (French) might bluff sociability.
Lehane's Dorchester, Massachussets, private eye Patrick Kenzie and his wife Angie (former last name Gennaro) simply would not be in the mood to chat about the mystery business after all the bad things that they have had to face. Neither college president LeMaster Carlyle (Carter) nor Easy Rawlins (Mosley), an unemployed mechanic turned custodian, would warm easily to those outside their respective African American circles — LeMaster’s upper class East Coast elites and Easy’s blue collar friends from the post WW II mean streets of Los Angeles.
Better to be a fly on their walls.
Participating in bravery vicariously
Often, but not always, mystery novels allow readers to brush shoulders with the greatness of acting bravely and doing the right thing. Authors are not immune to the magnetism of their creations. In interviews posted on Grafton's website and at North Carolina's Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, the author says that Kinsey Milhone reflects some of her own traits but that the characteristic to which she is most drawn is one that isn’t part of her regular life. She likes how Kinsey “represents the ‘heroic,’ an aspect of my nature which seldom gets called upon in the course of my ordinary life.” I suspect that this is true for most of Grafton's readers as well.
Great mystery novels take us into the hustle and away from the humdrum; they give us a break from our own limitations and locales. For at least a few hours, they tidy up and set aside our anxieties about the world’s messiness. And, sometimes, they make us sigh, “Whew! I’m glad that’s not my nightmare.”