The Mystery Reader
Years ago, I was one of several book reviewers for “Boston Review” and “The Boston Phoenix.” In the days before electronic submissions, publishers sent advanced copies or galleys to Arts Editors who made reviewer assignments, if we did not find on our own something that we wanted to read. Finding that soon-to-be-reviewed tome involved a trip to one office or the other and rummaging through stacks until selecting a book.
Other reviewers did the same and would often make comments on a book someone had selected. The jab went something like, “Why review that (substitute any genre here) when you could write about something more serious?” The slight was obvious: mystery, thriller, sci-fi (add any genre fiction) is less than so-called serious fiction. To take that thought further, genre readers are somehow inferior to readers of serious fiction. They want page-turning escape. They want to ignore the struggles of life, which is the purview of the serious novel.
P.D. James and John D. MacDonald, both excellent stylists to name but two, would likely challenge the notion that their best fiction was anything other than serious work, and that their readers were somehow inferior. In my view, readers who enjoy puzzling out the guilty in the pages of a well-written mystery are actively engaged in characters, plots, and places like no other readers.
One reason for this is that the nature of a mystery novel invites the reader to participate in solving a puzzle. A crime or murder is committed. What was the motive? How was it done? Who did it? These and other questions create a unique bond between writer and reader. As the characters develop and the plot hurries along, the mystery reader transforms him or herself into an additional detective trying to solve the case along with the fictional characters. This is especially true when the author writes in first person since the reader and the fictional detective learn about the crime and possible solutions simultaneously.
This participation in the novel occurs because readers of mysteries are basically curious. To solve the mystery requires careful, thoughtful reading mixed with a bit of logic that helps spot the red herrings. These readers really do want to know who did it. But they don’t want the answer to come too easily. Readers feel cheated when after 100 pages they have figured it all out. No, they want a challenge and good mysteries provide that.
Readers of mysteries relate to the underlying theme of all mystery novels: The never-ending battle between good and evil played out in a familiar arena.
In the real world, crime often does pay, and amoral, vicious men and women can and do get away without penalty. In most mystery novels, the good and virtuous win. The victory may not be tidy, some rough edges may remain, but the bad guys pay their debt. The victory over evil is sweeter when the protagonist overcomes his or her many flaws to gain the upper hand. Again, in the real world, our flaws are often not overcome. We don’t win all the entered races and the girl of our dreams may have run off with the crook who lives next door.
In a mystery novel, the crook gets busted, the girl comes to her senses, and we are all breaking the tape when we cross the finish line first. So for all those who take the time to spot a factual conflict in any of my work, I thank you in advance for taking my and all other mystery writers novels seriously enough to offer your thoughts. We are, after all, moving through the pages together.
About the Author
Larry Maness is the author of Nantucket Revenge, A Once Perfect Place, and Strangler—all featuring Jake Eaton, Private Investigator. The Jake Eaton mysteries and his novel The Voice of God were reprinted last year by Speaking Volumes Publishing who is publishing his newest novel, The Last Perdoux, this spring.
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