Why Readers Read Mysteries

By James N. Frey

Note: This article was written for a question/answer column in TEXTART, a German magazine for writers.

This, to those of us who love to write mysteries, is the most important question: Why are our readers drawn to the back of the bookstore where the mystery novels, with their lurid, bloodstained covers, are to be found in neat little rows somewhere between Horror and Romance? And why do they keep coming back time after time?

It's obvious that readers read mysteries for the same reasons they read any other kind of fiction. They enjoy the music of good prose. They want to be titillated by sex play. They want to be wrapped in the comforting warmth of a good story-teller's web, to be taken away from the cares of everyday life. And, too, they want to know about people. Fiction invites its readers to be intimate with people and their lives. So intimate that readers are taken right into characters' heads where they see, feel, touch, taste, and think right along with them. Reading fiction is a cure for the pervasive modern afflictions of loneliness and alienation.

Beyond intimacy, readers of fiction often crave adventure. They want to be shown places they could never visit in person: the back alleys of Tangiers, the stinking hold of a seventeenth century slave trader, the drawing rooms of Fifth Avenue in the days of the robber barons. Reading fiction is a form of learning, learning at the experiential level, which goes beyond just learning facts. A history book might tell you all about what the British naval forces did in the Napoleonic wars, but C.S. Forester with his Horatio Hornblower sagas puts his readers on the deck of a man-of-war and makes them tremble with the cannonades, fills their nostrils with the smell of powder, their ears with the cries of dying men.

When readers read good fiction something magical happens. Through the power of suggestion such as used by master hypnotists, the reader experiences an altered state of consciousness. Often the real word falls away as a reader is absorbed completely into the story world. This is the power of fiction: it not only teaches about the lives of others, it actually takes the reader inside their minds and lets them experience the lives of the characters at a profound psychological level. Once you read One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, you can never again see a mental hospital without feeling a shiver crawl up your spine.

The next question is, why do readers seek out mysteries in particular? In other words, what accounts for the astounding popularity of the mystery genre?

The usual answer is that readers want a puzzle to solve. In a mystery there's almost always a murder, then there are clues to the identity of the murderer, witness are summoned and grilled, there's a detective hot on the trail of the killer, and the killer is brought to justice in the end. It's fun to try to out-guess the detective, goes the usual wisdom, and that's why so many millions of people plunk down billions of dollars every year to read mysteries.

But mysteries don't always have a puzzle element. TV's Colombo, as an example, always shows the audience who did the murder and how it was done. If the audience was only looking at the puzzle element, the fun is spoiled in the first ten minutes of a Colombo episode. Yet Colombo has a huge audience and has been on television for twenty years.

So it's not just that they want a puzzle.

It's been argued that mysteries are popular because readers want to see justice done. Lajos Egri in The Art of Creative Writing said that "seeing justice done" was what suspense was all about. As mystery writers, it would be good to have the maxim Let Justice Prevail surgically implanted in our brains. Justice does play an important part.

In a mystery, though, it is not just any kind of justice, but, I think, it's a particular kind of justice that is not found elsewhere in fiction. It has to do with fundamental psychological needs of the reader.

Fundamental psychological needs of readers, I believe, explain the phenomenal numbers obtained by the romance genre, which accounts for somewhere around half of all the books sold on the North American continent. My friend and romance writer Phyllis Taylor Pianka defines a romance as "a fantasy based on fact." The fantasy is that love conquers all, that in the end, true love wills out against adversity and the hero and heroine are joined in a long term commitment to each other, usually marriage. The hero might have a few rough edges, but the heroine will soon civilize him, she thinks.

In real life, when did you ever see that happen? It's a total fantasy. But that doesn't matter to the reader. The fantasy serves to satisfy that deep psychological need in people to believe that love triumphs and that there is one special person out there for each of us.

Mystery fiction, too, serves a deep psychological need, I believe, which accounts for its popularity. It has to do with the fear of death. People, you may have noticed, are almost always afraid to die. In fact, they're scared to death to die.

Death is something that we Americans, consciously at any rate, pretty much ignore. When death comes, we feel it shouldn't have. If someone dies, the bereaved relatives immediately call their lawyer. There must be malpractice somewhere. Somebody must have done something wrong.

We Americans eat mush to improve our digestion, we don't smoke, don't drink, we always wear condoms, we get twenty minutes of aerobic exercise a week, and eight hours of REM sleep a night. Hell, we should live forever. If someone croaks, it's obvious somebody screwed up.

At a funeral, you hear things like, Gee, he was only 71. Exercised every day. That's not so old these days. How could he have gotten ugounderitus? Look at Fred over there--he's eighty, he smokes, drinks, and never leaves his couch--he hasn't gotten ugounderitus.

Death always seems to defy reason.

A young girl drowns in a pool. Why didn't the parents have a higher fence? A young boy is killed in a crosswalk. Why weren't there traffic lights? A young mother gets cancer. Must have been something in her diet, too many hamburgers, bad genes, not enough fiber in her breakfast cereal.

We're desperate at the deepest psychological level to make sense out of death. Death seems so damn irrational.

Ah, but not in a mystery. A mystery makes death rational.

In the beginning of a mystery there is a death. Not only did someone die, the death was under mysterious circumstances. The victim was found hanging from the shower curtain with a five pound wad of chewing gum stuck in his throat and scratches on his chest that said This is Only the Beginning. Such a death is not only an injustice, it is irrational.

A mystery is solved through reason. The detective is a hero armed with reason. It is the detective's power of reason that not only brings justice to a situation of injustice, but the detective also applies reason to the situation of death and make it rational. In the mystery, death yields it's secrets to the power of reason. To witness the triumph of reason over the irrationality of death is why, I think, readers read mysteries, and they will continue to read them as long as death itself remains the biggest mystery of all.

[Copyright ©James N. Frey; 1990, 2019]