Is It About The WHODUNNIT Or The WHO? (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

I’m in editing hell at the moment, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up an encore presentation of a previous post. Indeed, this was the very first post I wrote here on the misterio press blog.

64px-Fingerprint_(PSF)Is it the whodunnit or the who?

In the last afternoon session at a mystery writers’ conference, I was drifting a bit as the long day was catching up with me, when the presenter’s statement jolted me wide awake.

“Mysteries are not about the mystery. They’re about the characters.”

My first thought: Say what?
Second thought: Dang, he’s right.

“Two weeks after the reader has finished a mystery,” the presenter continued, “they’ve forgotten most of the plot. But if it was a good story, they remember the characters.”

I knew, as a mystery reader, that this rang true.

But why is it true? my inquisitive, analytical little mind asked. I’m not sure I have the definitive answer to that question, but here are my thoughts.

People walking on sidewalk

photo by Linda Bartlett, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

We are surrounded by two things every day. One, we are surrounded by ordinary people–butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (maybe not so many of them anymore), doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs (yes, I actually do know an Indian chief).

Two, unfortunately in American society today, we are also surrounded by violence.

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, which hovers around #12 on the list of worst crime cities in the country (after the recent riots, it may make it back into the top ten). When in Maryland visiting friends and family, my husband and I refer to the local Baltimore news broadcast as the “litany of murders.”

Okay, before you decide to click over to some less depressing blog, I am going to lighten up here.

So why in the world are murder mysteries and thrillers in the top three genres in fiction? (And they’ve been there for a long time!)

Cover of Black Mask magazine featuring the Maltese Falcon

Sept, 1929 issue of Black Mask magazine

Why do we turn to murder–that depressing, gruesome thing we hear about every night on the evening news–when we want to relax and be entertained?

Because we, as ordinary people, are fascinated by the idea of extraordinary things happening to other ordinary people like us. We want to see how the characters deal with the murder. If we find the characters engaging, if we can relate to them, then we are hooked.

When the everyday-person, could-be-you- or-me protagonist in a mystery is brave and daring, we are empowered. When s/he is scared, we swallow a lump in our own throats. When s/he is sad, our eyes tear up.

We project ourselves into these ordinary people who are struggling with out-of-the-ordinary situations. We are proud of their successes, mournful for their losses, terrified by the risks they must take, and relieved beyond measure when they are okay in the end.

We can experience these emotions and live through these experiences vicariously, without the real-life repercussions of such events. And often we grow a little and are strengthened, as the characters we have become immersed in are challenged and must grow or die.

In the past, when people have asked me why I love to read mysteries, I have said, “Because they are as far away from my own life as I can get. They are great escapes.” This is true, since I’m not in the habit of stumbling over dead bodies.

But I now realize that this statement is not the whole truth. I love mysteries because they are about people like me, but in situations unlike those I normally encounter in daily life. I love to see how these people (i.e., me) deal with the challenges of extraordinary events.

These are my thoughts. What are yours? Why do you love mysteries? Do you agree or disagree that they are mainly about the characters?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    May 5, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Terrific post, Kass! I like your reasons for enjoying mysteries. In addition, I love mysteries because they engage my mind intellectually as well as emotionally, and because justice is served in the end. That last reason is the most important, I think, in explaining why mysteries are so popular: the murderer is revealed, the puzzle is solved, a wrong is righted, and the world is restored to a place that was better than it was when we started the story. That’s way more satisfying than what the 6 o’clock news can dish up. 😉

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 5, 2015 at 9:23 am

      Thanks, Kathy. Glad you liked it! And that is a very good point about justice being served at the end. That isn’t always the case in real life.

  • Reply
    nancy reynolds
    May 5, 2015 at 11:44 am

    I agree with all you said, Kass, and with K.B. Owen, too. We can sort of relate to the cast of characters in the telling of the tale – how they react to situations and how they work to solve the problems. And there’s always a satisfying solving of the puzzle in the books – unlike what might happen in our own lives. So you get to escape your own life for a while and live vicariously through the pages of the books AND you get resolutions to all the questions conjured in the pages of the book by the time you close it. Then you have to return to the reality of your own life having been enriched by the story you’ve just finished. But, yes, you do remember the WHO in the book long after the actual situation(s) that arose.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 5, 2015 at 10:23 pm

      Yes, good point, Nancy, about the resolution. Too often real life leaves us hanging! And I definitely remember the Who long after the details of the story have faded, if the characters were ones I could relate to.

  • Reply
    May 5, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    I like your post. I never considered the reasons before. For one, I like the idea of trying to figure out or just enjoying how it unrolls, but ultimately its about the world made right, wrongs rightly, etc etc. Same reason as why I used to read comics – I want to see the good guys win!!! But you ideas strike a chord too. Without memorable characters it wouldn’t mean anything. We do identify with the characters and feel the emotions they are going through. I think the tv show Monk (and the books) said it pretty well. Monk had to straighten the world whenever something was “crooked”.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 5, 2015 at 10:40 pm

      I agree, Dwayne. The good guys have to win. They may take some losses, because that’s realistic. But in the end, they have to prevail. I read a book awhile back in which the bad guy won in the end. I hated it and was pissed at the author for days!

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    May 5, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    My theory is that every good story is at heart a mystery. We don’t know what will happen and we read to find out, particularly if we’re invested in the characters.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 5, 2015 at 8:32 pm

      Exactly, Vinnie! And very well said. I may quote you next time the subject comes up!

  • Reply
    Lynn Kelley
    May 5, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    I’m glad you reposted your first blog post, Kassandra. I must have missed it the first time, but what you share here is true about the characters. I think that’s true for pretty much all stories. At least it’s true as far as the ones that stick with me for months or years. Yes, some of them stay permanently and I end up rereading those books.

    I like the point Vinnie made, too. That would make a great quote!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 5, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      Yes, it is true for all stories! The characters have to be people we can relate to and care about. A lot of people missed this one originally, because I think we had maybe 3 subscribers back then… lol

  • Reply
    Marilyn Hiliau
    May 7, 2015 at 12:17 am

    It has always been about the characters. Many people who have very little knowledge of the works of Shakespear will still recognize characters (ie: Romeo, Juliet, McBeth, etc.) I frequently reread my favorite character mysteries just because they are my favorite characters. I still read Nero Wolfe books just because. Kate Huntington and Lucy Guardino from Kassandra Lamb and CJ Lyons are prime examples of strong, memorable characters along with Stone Barrington and Joanna Brady.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    May 7, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    True, Marilyn. I’m not sure why this was such a major revelation to me as a newbie author at that conference. I’m honored to be in the same sentence with CJ Lyons, and J.A. Jance has been a major inspiration for me.

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