USA Today reported today that, despite being dead, Agatha Christie remains a best-selling author. This is not mysterious — people like mystery stories, and Christie is one of the best-known mystery writers in the English-speaking world. Why do people like mysteries you might ask. Well, let me tell you. Or at least let me give you a theory or two about why people like reading detective stories.
Eugene Peterson lists some mysteries in his extended book-form reading list Take and Read. In the introduction to his list of ten he suggests that one reason people might read mysteries is “that right and wrong, so often obscured in the ambiguities of everyday living, are cleanly delineated in the murder mystery.” We thus read these stories because they provide us with “moral and intellectual breathing room” in the confusing ethical stew in which we live. Hmm. I’m not sure I buy this argument as Peterson presents it. Lets see what else is out there.
Dorothy L. Sayers, a writer of great detective fiction, had a slightly different theory on the popularity of the detective novel. In her really interesting essay The Mind of the Maker she noted that people like to think that life is like a problem that can be neatly solved. This, she argued, is not true. Life is not like a problem to be solved, rather it is like a medium for artistic creation. However, scientific methods have given people the illusion that life is like a problem and it can be solved, and people want be convinced that this is true. This, Sayers argued, is precisely why detective fiction is so popular. Here is the complete paragraph where she makes this point:
“The desire of being persuaded that all human experience may be presented in terms of a problem having a predictable, final, complete and sole possible solution accounts, to a great extent, for the late extraordinary popularity of detective fiction. This, we feel, is the concept of life which we want the artist to show us. It is significant that readers should so often welcome the detective-story as a way of escape from the problems of existence. It ‘takes their minds off their troubles.’ Of course it does; for it softly persuades them that love and hatred, poverty and unemployment, finance and international politics, are problems capable of being dealt with and solved in the same manner as the Death in the Library. The beautiful finality with which the curtain rings down on the close of the investigation conceals from the reader that no part of the ‘problem’ has been ‘solved’ except that part which was presented in problematic terms. The murderer’s motive has been detected, but nothing at all has been said about the healing of his murderous soul. Indeed, a major technical necessity of the writing is to prevent this aspect of the matter from ever presenting itself to the reader’s mind.”
With Peterson, Sayers argued that detective fiction simplifies things. Contra Peterson she did not think this gives us “intellectual and moral breathing room;” rather, she argued it provides the reader with a comforting illusion that life problems can be solved. Sayers then explained one of her detective novels and showed how in that book she’d presented readers with three problems based in the main idea, one solved, one partially solved, and the third insoluble. Good mystery novels can thus present the realities of life, not just comforting illusions.
Why do you read mysteries? Or why don’t you? (Interesting point: C.S. Lewis didn’t read mysteries, even though he and Sayers were friends, he didn’t think much of her detective stories.)