Okay, I admit to a little neurosis. And there’s nothing I like better than to read about dysfunctional relationships. Parents, siblings, children, not to mention in-laws---then there’s bosses, bitchy co-workers, that guy at the neighborhood association who complains to the board if your grass grows higher than three inches. Take dysfunction out to its suburban reaches and you have murder. And don’t I love to see a boss get what’s coming to him.
But the murder is only the starting point. Because no matter what kind of bastard got his comeuppance and how well deserved it was, the murderer always, always gets caught. And it’s like dude, couldn’t you have begged off the Christmas holiday / quit the job / broke up with her? In a mystery, we can count on the detective finding the murderer and bringing him to justice.
No matter how many blinds the murderer constructs, no matter how many theories the detective entertains, eventually she uncovers the truth. Robert McKee, in his book, Story, said: “In the ritual of story we continuously see through faces and activities of characters to depths of the unspoken, the unaware.” As we go through life, we realize how inscrutable we all are. What we show our co-workers or even our intimates is not the raw, unembellished self. The mystery’s conceit is to peel away those concealments. I can’t think of anything more satisfying.
James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, has this theory: “In a mystery, death which to all of us seems so arbitrary and irrational, is made logical and rational. The hero, using reason, triumphs over irrational death in a symbolic way.” Jim quotes Robert Parker (beloved writer of the Spenser series) as saying, “the mystery novel is one of the last refuges of the hero.” In our culture of disgraced leaders we need more stories of people overcoming obstacles, even danger, to right a wrong.