Romanced by Mystery: What I love about this enduring literary genre
Updated: Jun 8, 2018
The first time I read a yellow-bound Nancy Drew novel, it was not love at first sight. The story’s numerous characters and plot twists left me feeling rather confused; perhaps it was a bit advanced for my elementary reasoning. However, in high school I took a more serious look at the mystery genre when writing a literary criticism paper on the best-selling author in history second only to William Shakespeare.
No, it wasn’t Rowling, Tolstoy, Dickens, or Grisham. Not even Tolkien, Steel, Lewis, or Stine. Give up? The answer may surprise you. Of all the novelists who’ve ever put pen to paper, Agatha Christie, famous for sleuths like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, has outsold them all. Even today, mysteries are among the most popular and largest-grossing literary genres, making over 728 million dollars in sales behind romance novels last year, according to Bookstr.com. So what is it about the classic whodunnit that keeps people coming back for more clues and capers?
Mysteries foreshadow truth that’s deeper than fiction -- the promise that evil cannot hide forever.
Personally, there are two main reasons why I enjoy mysteries. Nonfiction enlightens. Fantasy enchants. Romance dreams. Horror shocks. Sci fi imagines. But the mystery challenges me to actively engage with the story in a unique way - puzzling through clues, sorting through motives, and creating order out of chaos to come to a satisfying conclusion. The more complicated the crime, the more intriguing the challenge. And though I’m fooled much of the time, mysteries continue to delight me again and again. I’m like the child marveling at the magician; was it the butler? The baker? The home-decorator? A dip into the top hat for a name and ... poof! The answer’s plain. All the clues fall into place and I wonder why the ending seemed so impossible just moments earlier.
But in addition to the mental exercise and entertainment value, there’s another reason why I keep returning to mysteries. Mysteries foreshadow truth that’s deeper than fiction - the promise that evil cannot hide forever. The detective always unravels the most cleverly-concealed crime. The truth always unmasks the lie, and - even when the truth is ugly - there is comfort in its triumph. At the end of the dark night, morning always dawns, illuminating all that was hidden. The mystery is solved. The case is closed. Justice is served.
In a world that often feels broken and chaotic, mysteries not only entertain but also encourage. Solving imaginary crimes in a small way satisfies the human hunger for justice and at the same time gives a foretaste of a hopeful future in which all wrongs are righted. Perhaps Dorothy Sayers, another mystery writer of whose Detection Club Agatha Christie was a member, says it best through her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey:
"Damn it, she writes detective stories, and in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have." ~ Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison
May I endeavor to write such stories.
Thanks for reading.
1) Graves, Walter. (https://www.ranker.com/list/the-best-selling-fiction-authors-of-all-time/walter-graves)
2) Mahogany Turner-Francis. Book Genres That Make the Most Money. 6 January 2017. (https://www.bookstr.com/book-genres-that-make-the-most-money)