Why do we enjoy reading mysteries so much? It’s an interesting question to consider and that’s just what I did recently. I gave it a lot of thought and this is what I came up with.
I think one reason people love reading mysteries is because they are a safe thrill, kind of like roller coasters when you’re a kid. They’re a safe adventure, as well. Just as in any other type of book, we get to visit exotic or interesting places. You can see the dark side of people, but you know that justice will prevail. Good will overcome evil.
Readers respond to books because they can relate to one of the characters. With a sleuth, or amateur detective, we respond because we can become part of the solution. We’re on the winning team, capturing villains, killers, and righting wrongs.
On a more basic level, we read mysteries for the same reasons we read romance or women’s fiction or sci fi. We love to escape into brilliant prose and fascinating stories. We find ourselves instantly involved in the characters’ lives, and being there with them, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, experiencing their emotional journey. What happens is that our view of the world grows. It fills up our loneliness and helps us figure out how to connect in the world. We learn about how others live and see the world, opening up our perspective and experiences.
Reading great mysteries, just like reading any other magnificent book, reality falls away and we become part of this fictional world that’s captivated our imagination. It’s magical! When we regret coming to the end of a story because we will miss the world or the characters we’ve become close with, we’ve truly experienced something magical.
In mysteries, there are puzzles to solve. The reader must piece together the clues, and if you do this one step ahead of the detective, booyah!! You puff up with pride. Smarter than Hercule Poirot is smart, indeed.
Smarter than Stephanie Plum is not such a boon to the confidence, but we read Stephanie Plum for the slapstick caper, not the puzzle.
More than the puzzle, though, mysteries help us cope with the psychological and emotional concept of death and our own mortality. There’s an old joke that says there are only two things we can all be sure of: taxes and death.
You can actually evade taxes, but you can never evade death. It will come, one way or another. In real life, we’re never prepared for death. It is never rational and never easily accepted. Ah, but in a mystery, death makes perfect sense–or at least it does by the time the sleuth has solved the crime and brought the killer to justice. He or she uses brain power (grey cells, if you’re Hercule Poirot) to deduce the truth behind the facade the killer has created.
Which brings us full circle to the idea of justice. In a mystery, death is explained through reasoning. A truth is discovered. For just a while, death, the one thing we cannot escape and can never understand, makes sense and we can accept it.