I read a lot of different fiction, from science fiction and fantasy to horror to swashbucklers to classics by Austen, Twain and Conrad.
But my longest love affair with a genre is with mysteries. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” started it. Once I finished that one I had to grab every Sherlock Holmes book I could find.
I think Rex Stout and Ellery Queen were next. I snatched up titles as quickly as possible, and soon was writing short stories about an intellectual marvel I called Luther Trench, who honestly was just Sherlock and Nero Wolfe sort of balled up into one guy. (I was quite young …)
Anyway, I had read all that stuff before graduating high school, when I was beginning to dig fantasy stuff thanks to Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Then I discovered John D. MacDonald. The book was “The Empty Copper Sea,” one of the Travis McGee novels, and I distinctly remember finishing the book and thinking, “Jesus, that was good.”
After that, I relentlessly sought out every McGee book. I wanted to write like that, and doubted I ever could. But I wanted to try.
I still have all of those McGee paperbacks. I still grab one each year and read it anew. Flying makes me nervous, so I grab a McGee when I fly and count on MacDonald to hold my attention so that I don’t notice turbulence or the proximity of strangers.
But why, you may ask, do mysteries appeal to me so strongly? Why do I abandon other genres for months, but seldom stray from crime fiction for more than a month or so?
Well, here’s why.
1. PLOT PLOT PLOT. My wife dubs me “The Plot King.” I prefer a book with a strong plot running through it to a meandering study of place and character, or a free-for-all fantasy novel where anything can happen, and so it does. A strong plot grips me, makes me keep reading.
A good mystery novel always has a strong plot. Someone kills someone else, and there are reasons for that. Someone digs into the mystery, step by step, and figures out why. The story has a beginning and an end, and no matter what dark corners the reader stumbles into because of red herrings or lies, it all comes together in the end. Well, usually.
2. PUZZLES. I am one of those people who attempts to solve the mystery before the detective explains whodunit. I am not alone in this. A great many mystery readers do the same. It is like playing chess with the author, or sudoku for word people.
My success rate varies from author to author, of course. Ellery Queen’s bizarre plots always befuddled me, but I did OK with Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. But whether I solve the crime on my own or not, I always enjoy the game.
3. JUSTICE. In mystery novels, justice tends to prevail. The killer is caught, the stolen items are retrieved, the syndicate is busted. Not always, of course. Sometimes Ed McBain’s hard-working cops ended up still wondering what the hell happened. But, usually, a mystery novel ends with justice being served.
This is not always so in the real world. Here, in reality, idiots win elections and rich folks beat the rap and con men often prevail. Life is not fair, as they say.
I think that is, perhaps, the biggest reason I read mysteries. Mom and Dad endowed me with a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and what I see happening in the real world often makes me angry, or sad. So I turn to escapist fiction as a respite. Sometimes, that takes the form of heroic characters wielding swords against loathsome demons. Sometimes, I want a valiant team in a starship solving the puzzles of the universe. But those stories, by their very nature, seem sort of far away.
A good mystery, on the other hand, is grounded in the real world. Perhaps the real of today, maybe the real world of the past, but a real world nonetheless — one where rules and logic work, one where a smart man or woman or team can track down the evil bastards and make them pay.
If only the real world could be that way …
Anyway, those are the reasons I love mysteries. Why do you?