Tag Archives: why love mysteries

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.

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