Why I love mysteries

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?


1 thought on “Why I love mysteries

  1. Hallo, Hallo again!

    After our convo tonight and the joy of having a new person appreciating my chat today, I wanted to drop by your lovely blog and take a gander at a few of your posts. This one stood out to me as I oft wondered what draws people into reading Mysteries. This post also reminds me why I want to start breaking a rhythm I have had on my own blog for six years – wherein, I have the tendency of writing non-tour (blog) and review posts within the limitations of memes (which I’ve made my own, but still) vs attempting to write discussional pieces instead like you’ve done with this one. Its a shift I’ve been wanting to move towards on my blog and I think this has nudged me happily into that direction.

    In regards to what draws my eye into Mysteries (as well as Suspense & Thrillers; from mainstream to INSPY and from Contemporary, Historical to Classical) are a bit on par with what you’ve described here as your personal favourite entrances as well! We’re also fellow Sherlockians – I have earmarked quite a heap of Sherlock to fill my Autumnal reads this year,.. esp as I have a collection of the audiobooks to dive into now.

    The only key place we differ in our appetite for Mysteries is that I can keenly be riveted to the page by a story which is heavily plot driven inasmuch as I do have a propensity to shift into those select few novelists who paint quite the portrait of setting, timescape and ‘place’ of character within the fuller background and scope of their serials. I do love character driven narratives, strong & feisty heroines / heroes as much as I love a wickedly cunning plot which I cannot resolve before the character(s) do themselves! I love to be taken by surprise and happily become rooted in the rhythm of the story.

    Now, you might think we differed on that aspect of them, too, the puzzling quandary however as I read and watch Mysteries (*cough* with devout passion) — I also like the puzzles themselves. I do try to tie the pieces together – sometimes its a bit easier for me if its a teleplay or motion picture – especially if an episode isn’t tying everything through known science & deductive reasoning skills – however, when it comes to fiction sometimes I just like to ‘suspend’ the thought process and curl inside a story I can feel wholly surprised by after I’ve read it.

    Gosh yes! Justice and compassionate empathy are two strong reasons I find myself drawn into certain serials (fiction/tv/etc). I’m currently binge watching my way through TJ Hooker (S1-2 had the heart; S3-4 has the grit of the streets); Hunter (slightly more edgy but oh I love the team!) and back-watching The Commish (starting in S1) as I watched the latter years a teen – all of which is avail via Roku for streaming (free). I’m always pleasantly surprised how much *new!* serial tv is avail to stream…

    However, each of these points towards different aspects of Crime Drama I enjoy – a bit like how Seventh Street Books (your publisher) quickly became my go-to publisher for dramatic crime dramas (ie. Samuel Craddock, Marjorie Trumaine) and Cosy Historical Mysteries (ie. Hiro Hattori, Anna Blanc) — I doubt I’ll ever not become wicked enthused by a Mystery, Suspense or Thriller narrative — even the lighter ones on Hallmark are a delight (esp: Murder She Baked, Aurora Teagarden, Darrow & Darrow or even Crossword Mysteries).

    A wicked good post and great discussion!

    PS: I was making my way through Mannix until I reached S5 via ILL (interlibrary loan) and the discs were damaged. Now with our ILLs on hiatus, I moved to Roku to find series I can binge instead.


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