October 19, 2009

Mystery Novels: Why Do We Love Them So Much?

What is it about mystery novels that makes them so readable, so addictive? You know the feeling. You snuggle up in bed or on a couch and become totally immersed in a world of suspense, secrets, and danger. You know that you have been reading for far too long, but you can’t stop. And even though you are driven to get to the end of the story, you are sorry once you do.

Don’t think you are alone in your love of mystery novels. Erin Smith estimates that crime/mystery novels account for one third of all fiction published in English worldwide (2006, 137). And in a 2005 national survey, Heritage Canada reported that the mystery genre is the most popular genre among readers (Reading and Buying Books for Pleasure, 67).

The mystery genre has a lot going for it. Joyce Saricks – the guru of popular fiction and readers’ advisory services – argues that the investigation and storyline are what most attract readers to the genre: “The point of Mysteries is to examine the clues and solve the puzzle” (2001, 147). For readers whose goal is to solve the mystery before the detective, the appeal is the intellectual challenge.

Gary Warren Niebuhr, on the other hand, believes that the greatest single attraction of the mystery novel is the character of the detective. He reminds us that readers form a strong emotional attachment with their favorite detectives. Because most mysteries are written as series books, they foster a particularly strong and sustained attachment as readers learn more and more about the protagonists (2003). Smith points out that “fans talk about characters as if they were real people. Many describe a mystery book as ‘company,’ and think about reading books about a series detective as spending time with a friend, without the demands of a human relationship” (2006, 143).

Certainly a large part of the fascination with the protagonist is the appeal of an inspirational, heroic figure. Characters who overcome obstacles are incredibly motivating. Readers not only want to be like them, but often try to model their lives after them. I agree with Smith who argues that mysteries offer opportunities for readers “to think through their own concerns while reading, to ‘try on’ ways of being in the world (physically courageous, mouthy, brave) through a protagonist’s adventures” (2006, 143). The figure of the detective offers a model and a blueprint for readers.

And who doesn’t thrive on suspense, excitement, and danger? We can experience the thrill and the risks vicariously. Let the fictional characters get hurt, not us.

Mystery novels create order out of disorder; they depict a righting of a wrong. This basic pattern fulfills a deep need within the human psyche. Michael Connelly describes mystery novels as follows: “Everything is ordered, good and bad clearly defined, the bad guy always gets what he deserves, the hero shines, no loose ends. It’s a refreshing antidote to the real world” (cited in Saricks 2001, 182). This is a powerful appeal. Certainly the events of our lives can seem chaotic and confusing. Stories, claims Taylor, “weave the experiences of life into apprehendable patterns”; they can “reveal the underlying connectedness of things. This is why we are drawn to narrative; we need to integrate the separate events in our own lives and search for hints to create a meaningful plot” (1996, 122). Mystery novels are especially effective at presenting this ordered pattern.

Department of Canadian Heritage. Reading and Buying Books for Pleasure: 2005 National Survey. Final Report. 2005.

Niebuhr, G. W. Make Mine a Mystery: A Reader’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.

Saricks, Joyce G. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001.

Smith, Erin. A. “Essay.” In Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests, edited by Diana Tixier Herald, 137-45. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.

Taylor, Daniel. The Healing Power of Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1996.