Monday, February 22, 2010

Why do we read mysteries?

Day 13 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project. Why do we read mysteries?! I don't actually read very many mysteries, but I notice that lots of people do, and that I eventually see some very popular mysteries after they are made into movies!

People come into Babbitt's Books and go straight to the mystery aisle and walk out with stacks of books. Sometimes they bring lists, so they won't buy the same book again, and sometimes they don't bring lists and do buy the same book twice. Which leads me back to the why question above. If the mystery was so forgettable, why the urge to repeat the experience? But maybe that is the answer in itself, and relates to my earlier comment about eating short stories. Do some of us read mysteries because it is like eating something we enjoy eating? We could then extend the metapor to nutritious food vs. comfort food that is not always nutritious and literary vs genre fiction, but I am not an elitist like that, I see the wonderful blurrings and blendings of such categories, and I mostly see categories as a way of organizing knowledge and bookshelves/bookstore aisles--that is, I see categories as practical, not definitive nor evaluative. Even in science, the categories (species, planets, etc.) do not hold exactly--there are new definitions, changes, blurrings. So, feh.

Specifically, why do we read murder mysteries? Is it to expose human evil, human motives?

Earlier this morning, about 5ish, I mused on Shakespeare. Macbeth seems clearly designed to show us the inadvisability of committing a murder to 1) impress the wife or 2) get ahead in life. Likewise, Hamlet invites us to question the urge for revenge played out as murder. Is the urge to avenge someone else's death just our own evil, similarly exposed, or really a messenger from God or the return of the Furies? Is revenge really about justice at all? Hamlet has a hard time deciding on this re: his father's ghost. Further, he has a hard time deciding whether it is a human's place at all to exact revenge, to take another human life. Shakespeare shows us it is probably not our place, as look at all this senseless violence, waste of life, etc. Something is rotten.... Fortinbras, please set things right!

Also, why, in some murder mysteries, is murder the solution to the murderer's problem (money, sex, ambition, revenge) in the first place? Why is human life so disposable to him/her? How are we to understand this?

So here are some of the mysteries people are reading:

Laura is about to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, the first in a trilogy by a Swedish writer who died in 2004 from a heart attack. A guy came into Babbitt's the other day looking for the Swedish mysteries. I didn't realize at the time that the book I'd tucked onto my own hold shelf, Laura's book, was probably what he wanted! Robert is also reading the Larsson trilogy, which includes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and The Girl Who Played with Fire. These are described by readers and reviewers as page-turners that are very literary. They seem less like the "forgettable" titles one might swallow too quickly.

Phyllis is about to read Whose Body by Dorothy Sayers, and Robert, Julie, and Tom all raved about Sayers's Gaudy Night, as well. (We have lots of Sayers fans at Babbitt's, too!) I would like to hear more about the appeal of these books, and why these particular mysteries are so compelling. Phyllis is reading Sayers in the context of her Mystery Book Club.

To pursue genre blurring and human motive a bit more, I'll mention that Susan is reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which seems to be an intricate look at evil as well as a detective story and a bunch of other things.

So, tell me, why do you read murder mysteries?

(And P.S., speaking of Hamlet, here is a different ending for Ophelia, thanks to her sassy gay friend, Second City Network, and Kevin Loomis!!)


Susan said...

I think the answers are as complex and as individual as the readers themselves--I imagine we all have different reasons for enjoying the genre, although the widespread popularity of mystery novels does suggest there is a universal (well, sort of) appeal.

I think of mysteries as literary comfort food, too! For me, they're rather like mashed potatoes: simple, familiar, easy to digest. I read Nancy Drew as a little girl, moved on to Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell and PD James. Now, I like to read mysteries that take place in non-western culture. I love novels from Japan. I also find Alexander McCall Smith's series interesting, which takes place in Africa.

While the genre is arguably formulaic with regards to plot, the characters in a well-written mystery can be pretty fascinating, especially those who commit the ultimate taboo, murder. I do agree, there's something about the nature of evil that makes us want to study it, make sense of it, and wrap the whole thing up in a neat, solvable little package. (Oh! If only it were that simple outside the pages of a book...)

That said, I do like it when writers experiment with the genre, taking it beyond the formula, leaving room for ambiguity and discarding some of the standard tropes in your typical "murder mystery."

Anonymous said...

A friend once said to me, "if you want to learn about a place, read a mystery that takes place there." Mysteries tend to be very well researched and are fun for more than the adrenalin rush catching the perpetrator. That said, my favorite mysteries are the more scientific -- Kathy Reichs for one --very gory, full of science and adventure. I also like Nevada Barr's books with Anna Pidgeon--a park ranger/detective who is VERY human but fascinating. I learned all about the national parks from her.


Kathleen said...

Thanks for commenting, both of you. Like Laura, I love learning stuff--history, science, even math!--from fiction. And, like Susan, I've had a chance to examine mystery and fiction from other countries, in translation, another kind of learning experience! Also Susan mentioned P.D. James, who comes highly recommended by Gaye, who let us borrow Children of God. And today I passed more P.D. James, still on the shelves at Babbitt's, but soon to be snapped up, I'm sure!!

Anonymous said...

Why do we read mysteries? Maybe another question is – aren’t all books mysteries? The mysteries may involve a locked room (a la John Dickson Carr), or they may involve a sinister menace (Fu Manchu, Professor Moriarty, or Rex Stout’s X) – but another mystery the reader may explore in any book is: how will the protagonist endure? What will they endure? Will they learn something from their experience? Will we learn anything from them? (Tomorrow is another day, Scarlett.)

Why read murder mysteries? And, why read foreign murder mysteries? Both may take the reader outside of their familiar setting (at least one would hope the reader isn’t splattered or splattering their surroundings with blood). Whether reading Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s “The Laughing Policeman,” or any one of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or Larsson’s trilogy – the reader is brought into another world, exposed to human evil, frailty, heroism (sometimes the simple heroism of everyday endurance), another perspective on society, or, a perspective on another society.

Sometimes the attraction is to a particular (vanished) time and place, in which detectives dicker or bicker their way to solving a set piece (Albert Campion, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Lord Peter Wimsy and Harriet Vane). Sometimes it’s a comedy of manners (Wimsey, again), or the comedic treatment of the eccentrics who people a particular place (Carl Hiaasen’s Florida). Whether it is the slightly soiled protagonists of Donald Westlake’s comically twisted Dortmunder novels or Paul Gallico’s “The Zoo Gang,” or Dick Francis’ not always stoically enduring protagonists (like Edward Lincoln in “Smokescreen”) in his well-researched novels, these mysteries can transport us to another situation. Sometimes it’s the simple mastery of language, or the quirky reimagining of history (as in Bernard Bastable’s “Too Many Notes, Mr. Mozart” in which the elderly Wolfgang Mozart tries to teach Princess Victoria the piano, while also trying to work out who is threatening her life).

Sometimes it’s the story itself, and sometimes the (mystery) book is a vehicle for seeing another time through its taste in the characters that peopled its popularly successful fiction. As Vincent Starrett wrote in his poem 221B:

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

As night descends upon this fabled street:

A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five.


Kathleen said...

Wow! Bob, you are an expert! Thanks, all, for these detailed, informational, and inspirational answers to the why question!

JulieK said...

I have a different and less scholarly theory as to why mysteries have an enduring appeal. I think our lives are complicated and mysterious on their own, but without solutions. So the classic mystery novel, in which the wrongdoers are unmasked and punished and Miss Marple or someone equally reassuring puts everything to rights is comforting. There is justice in mystery novels, if not in real life.

Of course, the hard-boiled private eye stuff is all about the absence of justice. They may solve a case and discover the killer (and not all mysteries are *murder* mysteries, of course) but the world will still be corrupt, the criminal may be the very dame the guy has fallen in love with, and he will end up alone on the mean streets with only his Fedora to keep him company.

We've matured from both the classic cozy and the hard-boiled private eye into the psychological mysteries of P.D. James and Elizabeth George, where the world is a pretty terrible place and the people in it are hugely flawed, both the criminals and the detectives, and I have to admit, I don't find those very satisfying. I understand that they reflect our "shades of gray" world, but my favorites are still Dorothy L., who managed to inject humor and intelligence and even (gasp!) romance into her books. I want a Daimler, I want Bunter to look after me, and I want to be at a tea dance in England in 1935 (without the corpse on the beach, please).

Although the puzzle aspect is part of it, I am definitely attracted to mysteries that aren't too dark or destructive (looking at you, Elizabeth George) and instead have a sense of humor. Elizabeth Peters and Donald Westlake are (or were, in his case) more contemporary mystery authors, but still good matches for my taste. They show smart, quirky, snarky humor which I appreciate.

I think what I enjoy most, though, is the sense of justice that finishes a good mystery. That's why "Miss Pym Disposes," by Josephine Tey, was not a good read for me. And that's curious to me from an author who was so into justice that she spent a whole book trying to repair Richard III's reputation.

Kathleen said...

Wooee, Julie, thanks!! (And who are you calling scholarly?!)

Anonymous said...

I agree that the hope for justice plays some part in the popularity of mysteries – if not generally, at least in the fiction that appeals to me. But the popularity of what I think of as rather unsatisfactory works, in which there is no one with whom I can sympathize or empathize, makes me unsure of how much of its broader popularity can be traced to the hope for justice. Perhaps that broader popularity mirrors the popularity of conspiracy theories – it provides a frame for interpreting the world, making it more ordered, more explicable.

I do think that the prospect of justice contributes to the appeal of some mysteries (whether Francis, Sayers, Christie, Hiaasen, Gallico, Tey, Allingham, - or Dashiell Hammett). The “Continental Op” may do his work in sordid circumstances, but he, like Sherlock Holmes And Dr. Watson, can render a verdict and dispense justice. (Though how we define justice occupies a scale from Asimov’s robotic equation to “that which exists when all the laws are enforced” to more abstract concepts of order and balance.)

As Terry Pratchett’s Death observes in “Hogfather,” “take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.” And when his granddaughter Susan says “But people have got to believe that, or what's the point?” he replies: “You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?”

For all of their hard-boiled nature, Hammett’s stories appeal to me in a way that some otherwise well-written books, in which I find no character with whom I can sympathize or empathize, don’t. Perhaps it is that element of knight-errantry about the Op or Sam Spade. Perhaps it is simply that he knew how to write a gripping story. But when a book has neither good writing, nor any engaging character or story element, I ask myself: why bother? There’s too much good writing out there (fiction and otherwise) that is just begging for attention.