What is it about mysteries?

Why do we want the reader of a mystery story to be able to “solve” the crime based on the clues given in the story?

What is it that makes a certain group of readers choose a mystery rather than a western or a romance? I don’t think it is because readers like to believe that the world is ultimately an orderly and just place. They could get this kind of satisfaction from a story even if the clues were not there as long as the ending was appropriate.

I’m not sure I can rely on any resource other than introspection, but assuming I am a fairly regular guy, maybe that will be enough for me to get started.

I suspect that most readers do not solve the mystery they are reading (though certainly there are many who do). What reasons can I give for this? One, I think many readers simply tire of keeping all of the clues straight and analyzing each plot point’s nuanced meaning in the story. Two, I think many authors are very clever in their construction of the mystery so readers cannot see the resolution coming even though all of the evidence was there before them. Three, which is the antithesis of two, sometimes writers simply make too many suspects or motives and then seems to simply choose one from the host and declare it the solution. I’ve read plenty of mysteries where any of the possible solutions presented could have been the right one and the sleuth gets the privilege of simply declaring which one it is. (tres unsatisfying!) Any of the other suspects had the same level of means, motive, and opportunity, so the reader is left to rely on the seemingly random choice of the author. (Why does an author craft a mystery in this way? I suspect it is because he doesn’t have enough story or subtlety to keep the reader guessing other than by giving this overload of characters and motives.)

I think mystery readers like the intricate crafting of mystery plots, for plot is the strongest (though not exclusive) device used in mysteries. Even if they can’t solve the mystery themselves, they enjoy seeing how it was laid out and pieced together. In a similar way, it might be like a carved box. Even though I know I don’t have the skill, I can appreciate the result. I cannot play the cello, but I can enjoy the sublime quality of one in skilled hands. I think readers appreciate the craft of a well made story, but I don’t think this is the same thing as the appreciation of the depiction of an orderly and just world.

I think many readers appreciate the mere idea that they could have solved the mystery, even if they don’t do so. They appreciate knowing that all of the resources they needed were set before them, even if they didn’t use or recognize them. In this way I think they feel that their unspoken contract with the writer was fulfilled. And I think this is the same source that can anger readers when they feel they have been cheated by a mystery that withheld clues.

Most of all, though, I think readers want the vicarious experience of solving the mystery. Even if they can’t keep all of the clues straight, they like the notion that the detective, who is their surrogate, did what they could have done themselves — that the author let them live inside the brilliant or insightful mind of the sleuth. In this way the escapism of the story becomes flattering, which appeals to the reader on another level.

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One Comment on “What is it about mysteries?”

  1. J.B. Kohl Says:

    Love this post. As a mystery writer, it is nice to hear the point of view of a reader. As a reader, I read mysteries because they are predictable…in that I know the story will come to a satisfying end. The killer will be caught, the world will be set on its axis again. What I HATE about some mysteries…is when a seemingly insignificant item which appeared so shortly and innocently in Chapter 2 makes a reappearance in Chapter 20…and as a reader I’m supposed to remember all about it. Like your blog…
    J.B.


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