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.
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.