I was one of those adolescents who had to read everything they’d ever heard of, including the entire rack of Penguin classics at the local bookstore plus everything else by each of those authors, all the NYT bestsellers I could get my hands on, and ancient editions of Dickens and Thackeray from the used book alley. But mysteries, especially traditional whodunits, always held a special attraction for me, and that’s no mystery: I know exactly why. The theory’s been repeated since the genre first emerged: mystery stories are essentially morality tales.
I’m familiar with all the usual suspects, of course: Christie, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Poe, Collins, Sayers, Queen, Tey, Stout, everyone. I like Caleb Carr, Martha Grimes, Jane Haddam; I’ve enjoyed Sue Grafton, Donald E. Westlake, and Stieg Larsson’s original Dragon Tattoo books. I read less of the genre these days, but I remain loyal to a few select favorites.
Good mystery series are all about the relationships. Well, after Christie the solution is always secondary; it’s not that no one else ever did it as well, it’s that no one else has ever done it. Dame Agatha taught me that with psychology and observation I could see beyond appearances to the truth, I could prove myself right and everyone else wrong, unmask the real villain and solve the puzzle of my own life. And there’s the attraction, of course, that vicarious vindication. Mysteries are about moral confirmation, not the reveal.
By the pricking of our thumbs we know that evil’s always afoot, but what and where and exactly who’s behind it? The wicked uncle or exotic foreigner, the master criminal or crude mobster? Maybe the over-friendly neighbor or loving spouse, the business partner or new love? It could be the government, or some giant international corporation, and never mind police corruption! Is it about money, love, power, or fear? Observe carefully; no one can be presumed innocent, not even your kindly Grandma, because something somewhere is not what it seems. And maybe all this seems a rough kind of magic, a cheap trick, but something interesting is going on here and it’s relentlessly progressive.
They’re all exposed in turn: the racist, social, and sexual repressions of the Victorians (and God bless the British everywhere for all they’ve done around the globe, and for their current royal rebranding as a Disney franchise); the mob violence of Prohibition; the post-war anomie and alienation (any war); the innately treacherous machinations of romance, especially among the wealthy; the seething dynamics of the perfect family or ideal village; the corruption that seeps down or else crawls up from the streets. All good writing takes its inspiration from the society it influences, establishing truth with stories. Mere suspicions develop into fictional evildoers who are suddenly here among us, real and undeniable and even obvious.
Now that CSI, DNA and phone cameras are picking up so much of the slack the private eye seems obsolete, a professional Peeping Tom spying on adulterers. As for that protagonist of the cozy story perennially outsmarting the authorities – please! So what’s left for the adherent seeking a fix? Well, that’s the real mystery, isn’t it? Today we’re in the era of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and The Woman in the Window. New secrets are being exposed, new sources of evil recognized and, at least in the pages of a satisfying mystery, vanquished. Now that feminism is having a star turn, I sometimes wonder if we’re not reading in here, projecting doctrine where none was intended, but then I remember how that’s impossible if a woman authored the book to begin with.
All this time and we never realized.
And I wonder what’s next, because obviously we’re not at the end of moral evolution and its resulting moral reevaluation, and that means the mystery novel is evolving as well, finding new wrongs to expose. What crimes of the heart and soul, of society and politics, of history and the intellect itself will they uncover next?
Only the shadow knows.
(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)
Photo credits: paul stumpr, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd CC BY-SA 2.0 / Stewart Black, 14 CC by 2.0