Mystery and Its Merit

Most of this particular blog focuses on fantasy and not much else, or at least it has for the first year. In the interests of varying the content and showing that I do read more than The Lord of the Rings over and over again, I’m going to try and talk a little more about other, more philosophical and meaningful things.

Like mysteries!

When I was in middle school, my parents handed me their spectacularly gorgeous edition of Sherlock Holmes stories, with the original illustrations drawn by Sidney Paget for the Strand Magazine. Once I got past the distracting oil-swirled inside covers (THEY WERE SO PRETTY), I  started off with “The Red-Headed League” and immediately followed with “The Speckled Band.” And that launched my still-burning love for unusual/ grotesque murders with well-plotted and well-concealed solutions, and quirky detectives to lead the reader to said solutions.

One only needs to look at the number of recent adaptions of the Sherlock Holmes stories to know that I’m not the only one who shares this fascination. And I think it’s worth noting that though the stories of the detective and his colleague have seen so many adaptions through so many different lenses- and that most do a fairly good job of being faithful to the spirit of the originals, if not the text. These stories have a pull that goes beyond Victorian London and into something more universal- namely the baser sides of human nature.

I’ve read a lot of mysteries ever since devouring that collection of Sherlock Holmes, stories by many different authors about many different kinds of people.  When I was first starting out, it was the disturbing aspect of mysteries that I enjoyed. It was excited and unnerving to get glimpses of how awful people could be, and in a way I think that made coping with the nastiness of the real world a bit less upsetting than it might otherwise have been. It was upsetting to find that people did, in real life, commit brutal and senseless crimes, but it wasn’t the shock that it might otherwise have been.

Overall, I think mysteries do a bit more than just soften the blow of how violent and horrible the real world for me. They’ve been immensely popular ever since Edgar Allen Poe kickstarted the genre (with some help from Wilkie Collins and probably someone else I’m forgetting). Regardless, they’ve been around for a while as a genre, with many variations. I’m pretty sure you can make the case that if it wasn’t for the enduring popularity of mystery novels, we wouldn’t have the glut of police procedurals in six different locations with protagonist faces swapped out depending on location. People enjoy seeing crimes.

I admit I think part of this enjoyment is a tad voyeuristic, at least in that we do like to look at catastrophes and unsettling things from a safe distance. Alfred Hitchcock once said that fear is an emotion people like to experience as long as they know they’re safe. And mysteries (fictional ones at least) fulfill something of that urge humans experience to go into the haunted house or down into the basement when something goes bump. We like seeing the nasty side of things- as long as we know that we aren’t going to caught up in them.

But I would argue there’s a less… unsavory aspect to the love of mysteries and grim procedurals: We like seeing the crime solved.

We want the bad guy to get caught, to be arrested, and, depending on the severity of his crime, be dumped in the big house or try and escape and die in a fiery wreck of justice. Is that necessarily true to life? Of course not. But I think we want to see that it can be. We want to be told that we can beat the nastier aspects of life, that they can be solved. I do think most mysteries fall short in that they don’t show what has to happen afterwards- changing, being better humans in general, learning to better hold the line between right and wrong- but they do a good job showing how that betterment might be reached, or how we might begin to reach it.

And of course, if you don’t feel in the mood for over-thinkage, they’re a lot of fun to read. Or watch.



12 thoughts on “Mystery and Its Merit

  1. The Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty good actually. I felt a bit swizzed when it turns out that Sherlock is barely in some of them, like The Hound of the Baskervilles. Some of the Poirot books were even worse in that respect.

    Interest comments about what Hitchcock said, I never thought of it that way. I guess there’s an ego element to it, whereby you get to feel that you ‘fought’ your fear and won.

    • I love the Sherlock Holmes stories. They have a lot of intrigue and appeal and can be really terrifying at some points- I remember reading “The Five Orange Pips” and nearly throwing the book away, it spooked me so much. For the presence of the detective, it depended on how well it was handled for me. I think the plot of Hound of the Baskervilles is good enough that I can tolerate Holmes not being there, even if his reasons for being absent are really flimsy.

      I think that’s part of it, even though we technically haven’t fought anything. Then again, I completely wimp out at the prospect of actually facing any of my major fears (alone in the dark, mind messups, and so on). I think the taste for fear is part of people’s basic curiosity, and when we’re safe, we’re freer to indulge that.

  2. Really interesting post Maggie! I must admit the mystery genre is not one I have really spent much time in, I’m not sure why. I guess from a distance they don’t really appeal to me all that much and my brain tends to unfairly place them in the paperback thriller pile. Reading The Brutal Art late last year though made me realize my massive mistake! Mysteries can actually be really awesome, and I’m looking forward to trying a few more. I’ve got a very pretty leather bound classic version of the entire Sherlock Holmes on my uni desk that is calling out to be read, and I’m really looking forward to discovering the stories inside in the future. I haven’t read any Poe yet either, I would really like to do that at some point too.

    Agggh, too many good books in the world! 🙂

    • I’ve been kind of saturated in it, by choice, so my love of it isn’t exactly unbiased. But I really adore trying to unravel the mystery with the detective, and usually I miserably fail. But I have so much fun trying to sort out how the murder happened and what everyone else is hiding. As ghoulish as it sounds, it’s fun to see that aspect of life from the armchair, as it were.

      Ah that’s awesome! Leather-bound and everything, that’s great! I got a really nice edition of the earlier collections, with the Paget illustrations, for Christmas, and want to do a binge-read at some point. I also want to read some more noir-type mysteries, as I’m not too familiar with many of the works in that category.

      I hear you. I’m thinking about doing a brief follow-up to this with some of my favorite and slightly obscure detectives that don’t get as much press as some others. We’ll see how much time I have after reading a play and writing an article…

  3. I do love mystery stories – it started with the Boxcar Children books in 2nd grade… good times. That genre was my first love before fantasy, even. Now I mostly rely on Psych, Monk, and Sherlock. ONCE I GET THROUGH MY STACK OF BOOKS TO READ (haha) I intend to add some literary titles to that list.

    • Psych, Monk, and Sherlock are all excellent sources of mystery- speaking of, have you caught up on Sherlock yet? Because if you have I would love to complain/rave about the finale. And yeah- I think your to-be-read pile is probably high enough for the moment 🙂 But definitely add some mysteries to that when you can!

      • No, not yet. 😦 But my friend just bought both seasons, so we’re going to have some Sherlock-watching parties soon. To be honest, I’m kind of dreading getting to the finale, because if it’s anything like the end of the first season, it’s going to kill me. But I’ll let you know when I do finish it!

        • Awesome! Although I think both seasons are on Netflix now? Anyhow, I re-watched the finale recently and… yeah, if the finale of last season did you in, make sure to watch the second season finale with friends. And I don’t know if I can take much more waiting. I neeeeeed more. Hurry up with The Hobbit already, you two… (Martin and Benedict)

  4. An expert on horror movies came to speak at my school a few months back, and she said something very similar to that Hitchcock quote. She went further and said that putting ourselves through the terror makes us more mature and competent – we may not have lived through the awful events we’ve just seen, but we’ve followed someone else as they did, and we’ve learned – in a risk-free way – how to cope with similar situations (or not cope and get murdered by the creepy monster). Even more importantly, we learn to control our own fear, so if we ever do find ourselves in a terrifying situation, we’ll be able to think clearly (enough) and get through it.

    I’ve always hated horror movies, but I thought it was an interesting point. Perhaps in a way the mystery story is a safer version of the same, precisely because you get to see the whole thing wrapped up and the ‘monster’ defeated by the machinations of justice.


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