The Allure of the Mystery Novel

There isn’t much that tops Hercule Poirot getting worked up into a lather because of the “little gray cells.” Maybe when he reveals the murderer at the end, or when he goes head-to-head with modern police technology and comes up triumphant. In mystery novels, the only question ties back to the crime ““ from start to finish, it’s inevitable that good will triumph.

In some ways, mystery novels are children’s books for adults. Like children’s books, mystery novels pit good versus evil, and while they allow for shades of gray, the endings are expected. The murderer gets theirs at the end, usually. There is a reason for why everything happened, and sometimes a moral. For me, the driving interest comes from revealing secrets and untangling the web of deceit that the characters have thrown around themselves.  That’s why I read the novels ““ to find out other people’s secrets, to see how small actions can spin into large consequences, to know why things are the way they are.

That’s the beauty of the mystery novel ““ it’s a neat, self-contained little package. Life is messy. When bad things happen, there isn’t always a soothing, honorable detective there to figure out why it happened. Sometimes there is no why. Sometimes there are no answers. There is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty in a world where terrible things can happen to anyone, where there never has to be any closure. Mystery novels, for a brief moment, make sense out of this uncertainty. They make the world simpler.

While I prefer to live in a world that’s messy rather than one that can at times echo the morality plays of medieval Europe, I appreciate the neat escape that mystery novels give me. Beyond just the feelings of closure, there is almost a feeling of control when immersed, eyes deep, in the pages of a mystery. Sure, what’s happened happened, but you (the reader!) can figure out what went down and why. It’s a book that asks the readers to think differently about what they’re reading ““ it’s telling 7/8ths of the story and dangling that last eighth in front of your nose like a carrot, egging you on through the pages. It’s interactive in a different (but not better, just different) way from other books.

And that’s the perfect escape, isn’t it? To escape from chaos and disorder briefly into order and control is lovely. It’s completely artificial, and again, not a way I’d want to live my real life, but for a few hours after work or on the weekend, it’s a lovely way to be.

10 replies on “The Allure of the Mystery Novel”

Has anyone read any Dorothy L. Sayers? She wrote her novels in the 1920’s and ’30’s, lived a fascinating life, and is absolutely the mystery novelist’s mystery novelist. What’s more, her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey could out-Poirot Poirot any day, AND he is a geek girl’s dream come true! Murder Must Advertise which was inspired by DL’s years working in an advertising agency in the 1920’s is a great place to start with her books. Highly recommended! (I MAY be a little obsessed…)

Ooh, I’m going to put a plug in for my favorite mystery novel, ‘A Dark Adapted Eye‘ A Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) novel. Absolutely brilliant novel where the central mystery is the identity of the mother of a child, unlike most mysteries, which revolve around the father. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

And while not technically a mystery, the book I finished yesterday seems like something mystery lovers would like — The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. I am rarely surprised by the ending of a novel and I didn’t see this one coming at all.

I love mysteries. LOVE. I read all of Agatha Christie when I was a kid – before that I read everything from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Encyclopedia Brown, Cam Jansen, and Trixie Belden.

I also enjoyed In the Woods, and would recommend it to others. I haven’t read many mysteries lately because the genre seems a bit muddied with thrillers, and weird tangents. But I read the Thursday Next books (by Fforde) and quite a few Pendergast books (by Lincoln & Child), so I have a bit of range, there. I used to love Patricia Cornwall before she started writing the same book over and over. (Her and Robin Cook)

More recently I’ve been going for easy-reading chick-lit mysteries, and the Women’s Murder Club (Patterson) which is apparently getting old for me now (book 10 has been cracked open but I can’t bring myself to continue). I fear I’ve forsaken the genre in favor of young adult action-fantasy (a la Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the like – no sparkly vampires need apply).

I’ll have to look for the other Tana French books, though…I think I might like those.

I have read probably 98% of all Agatha Christie’s mystery novels. Devoured is a good term.

But, there was one non-Agatha book I read that I both LOVED and HATED because it didn’t wrap up neatly. It was messy from start to finish using the best writing possible. When you yell at the characters, you know you’re hooked.

So, if you want to experience something that actually leaves you dangling from the cliff’s edge without a hand to grab – go pick up Tana French’s In The Woods. It was her first book and there are two more. The second is equally intense (and I haven’t read the third yet but I’m super excited about it.).

I also love Agatha Christie’s novels. This is kind of random but have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? I found some similarities between that and The Likeness so I thought, if you like Tana French’s novels you might like The Secret History. If you haven’t read it already of course!

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson is a really good mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie. It’s got a twist in that the ‘sleuth’ is based on (and named after ) a real person.

And though I didn’t like this book, others may certainly have a different view of it–The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower. It’s about an 1841 murder and Edgar Allen Poe’s dismal life at that time and his short fictional story based on the murder.

Lastly, The Black Dahlia Avenger by Steven Hodel. Hodel is a PI who finds out he has a personal connection with the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short. It’s kinda trippy.

Take the Black Dahlia Avenger with a grain of salt. There’s a lot of criticism of his assertions in the book. I find it harder to swallow now that I read his second book, Most Evil, which makes a variety of really outlandish claims that seem awfully difficult to swallow.

If you’re interested in the Black Dahlia case, I highly recommend James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia — brilliant noir work. (And his autobiography about growing up in the shadow of two murders — the Dahlia’s and his own mother — My Dark Places is amazing and heartbreaking.)

Leave a Reply