Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why We Love Mysteries - Part II

A couple weeks ago I posted some opinions as to why we all love crime fiction so much. It was a start, but I only scratched the surface - there is much more to our passion for these books.

For example, another big draw of crime fiction is that it lets us look into the lives of others. My character Hannibal Jones is a professional troubleshooter living in Southeast DC. But you can check out the lives of private detectives, cops, DA’s, lawyers, and amateur sleuths who can be chefs, maids, cab drivers, practically anything. Then there are the lives of the suspects and victims. We see them all, and see their every secret because, let’s face it, there are no secrets in a murder investigation. And because these stories are about people’s motives, the good ones are really about the truth. Stories based on investigations are ideal for exploring the smallest details of daily life. And to create realistic characters we authors have to pay attention to the details: what people eat, what they drink, what they wear, what music they listen to and maybe more than anything else, what they want out of life. We have to show what the prevailing customs are in our society, and what the norms are in different groups. We examine social issues best.

My stories often start in the poorer quarters of Washington, but before me Walter Mosley used Easy Rawlins to push mysteries out of the drawing room and out into the streets where violence is a day-to-day, life and death issue. We use our characters to show people a side of our society they might not see any other way.

Since the early days of mysteries, women have done for women what Walter Mosley and I do for African Americans. Starting in 1920 Agatha Christie wrote nearly 70 novels, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Georgette Heyer, and Ngaio March represented for British ladies. And a lot of women got hooked on mysteries early because of Mildred Wirt Benson, who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote most of the original Nancy Drew mysteries.

Reading more contemporary mysteries is a good way to understand the changing role of women in our society. Until the 70’s women wrote cozies while men wrote hard-boiled and police procedurals. Then Sue Grafton got published and offered the distaff view of professional detective work. Patricia Cornwell and Karin Slaughter write books that make a lot of MEN squeamish. I’ve already mentioned Tess Monahan, Laura Lippman’s private eye. Tess and Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski are both female hard-boiled private eyes. In 1986 Ms. Paretsky helped found Sisters in Crime to, in her words, “combat discrimination against women in the mystery field,” among other things. Today, Sisters in Crime boasts more than 3,000 members, and 20% of us are men.

Lauren Henderson’s detective is a dominatrix. She, Laura Lippman and Katy Munger call their sub-genre of detective fiction “tart noir.” Their web site, tart, says that their characters are, “neofeminist women, half Phillip Marlowe, half femme fatale, who think it’s entirely possible to save the world while wearing s drop-dead dress and stiletto heels.”

Among the seemingly contradictory reasons we love mysteries is because they keep us up at night. Karin Slaughter is one of the recent writers who take violence to a new level. Dealing with violence is one of the important undercurrents of crime fiction. My detective, Hannibal Jones has a problem controlling his temper in the first novel. It’s one of the more important sub-plots because he lives in a violent world.

Paradoxically, people also read mysteries because they keep the darkness away. Remember these books gained popularity in the Victorian Age, when the murder rate was double what it is now. People needed reassurance, and these books give us that. We can see how the police actually do their job, and get a sense that the criminal justice system really works. And we get to spend time in a world where bad guys are always punished. It’s comforting.

We love mysteries in part because of the rich historical heritage. It’s generally agreed that the genre as we know it began with Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840’s, although I personally don’t consider his stuff real detective fiction. I pin the beginning to Wilkie Collins who published the Moonstone in 1868. It settled into a firm shape when Arthur Conan Doyle published “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887. Amazingly, these people are still in print, along with others I mentioned earlier – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and the rest. And the people I admire most, those who created hardboiled fiction, can still be found. All five of Dashiel Hammett’s books are available, and all seven of Raymond Chandler’s beautiful novels remain in print. Ellery Queen? Still there. And what better way to rediscover the noir period of the 1950’s, the free love days of the 1960s, and the rebellious 1970s’?

So mysteries give us a lot to look back on. But I think the biggest reason my readers say they love mysteries is that these books gives them something to look forward to. Fans develop serious addictions to their favorite characters. They want to know what happens next in the lives of Hannibal Jones or Kinsey Milhone or Tess Monahan or Alex Delaware. Let’s face it; we know more about these fictional people than we do about our best friends. And we can’t wait to see them again when the next book comes out.

And it’s a good thing that we love mysteries because as I said, crime fiction is the only literature courageous enough to deal with the biggest issues of our times – guilty versus innocence, good versus evil, right versus wrong. We can escape reality and deal with it at the same time, reading crime fiction.

1 comment:

Cheryl Tardif said...

I love how you tied in other authors and their detective characters. Very interesting post!