Mystery of Life: Crime Fiction and Fear

HalloweenAs a mystery writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how murder might occur interestingly. Where to bury the body? How to get rid of the blood-soaked clothes? In a mystery novel, you not only have to create one believable murder, you have to create two or three believable murders—to give your red herring characters something to be disproved from having done, and your reader a chance to be surprised. That’s two or more murders for every book we write.

Hang out with mystery writers at a conference sometime, and you’ll be glad to get away from us. Waiters in the bar? Don’t make eye contact.

The truth of the matter, though, is that crime scares me.

I write amateur detective novels. In these books, average people investigate crimes that are usually in some way personal to them. I’m not afraid to tell you what I would do if, like the characters in my novels, I discovered the body of a friend or colleague on the ground in a pool of blood.

I would call freaking 911. And so would you. After the screaming. Screaming comes first, of course.

Amateur detectives do all that, too. They scream and cry, and call for help. But then they somehow turn the injustice and anger they feel into a reaction I don’t personally understand: they start asking questions.

I have two journalism degrees, but in real life, I would be the least curious person at a crime scene. I can’t tell you how much I could look the other way. Oh, I would do my civic duty. I would share what I knew. And then I would go inside, lock the doors, and throw up spectacularly.

But that’s why mysteries are so interesting to me. Mysteries aren’t about gore or violence—though some books do offer such thrills, if you want them. Mysteries are far more about the puzzle, the intellectual exercise. Mystery writers are a dark bunch, to be sure, but what we have in common more than the macabre is the love of setting the trap, for the reader and for the killer.

Because in mysteries, the killers are always caught. Maybe not in one book or one TV episode, but eventually they get theirs. Mysteries in novels get solved, or they’re not mysteries. (They might be literary novels. Ooops, did I say that?) Mystery writers get to be the righter of wrongs as well as the puzzle master. A pretty sweet gig.

Of course in real life, mysteries go unsolved all the time. Sometimes for years, sometimes forever. There’s nothing you or I or any mystery writer can do about that. But that’s why real life crime is so frightening—we can’t control it. We can’t predict it. We’re helpless against crime happening against us for no reason (like in THE BLACK HOUR) or against someone we love (like in my work in progress). We can be victims, no matter how many Agatha Christie books we’ve read.

It’s satisfying to read mystery after mystery, though, because it’s tantalizing to draw near the abyss. It’s satisfying to cheat death. It’s satisfying to put baddies behind bars and, for once, to have justice served. Even if you’d really be hiding under the covers in real life, by following mystery protagonists into danger, we get to be braver than we ever thought possible.

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

17 thoughts on “Mystery of Life: Crime Fiction and Fear

  1. What makes all of this so interesting is that no one really knows how they’d react in types of situations you’re describing until they actually happen. And hopefully, for most people, that’s never. But it’s good fodder for fiction!

  2. I think you touch upon an interesting point, which is that mysteries help us live out justice vicariously in ways that we don’t always get to do in real life. I’m fascinated by forensic crime shows, those hour-long specials about murders that go unsolved for decades until the combination of science and one little piece of lint end up finally identifying the killer. It feels gratifying to see someone didn’t get away with it, but it’s also terrifying to think it happened in the first place.

  3. I have a feeling I’d be one of those curious types — at least as far as loitering around for as long as possible to eavesdrop. But…I don’t know if I could become an actual amateur sleuth…actually, no way. I’m too lazy, plus I’ve got a dog to walk and stuff to do. 🙂

  4. You’re so ‘right on’ Lori. It is so satisfying to figure it out when reading. Unfortunately I lived through friends who’s daughter was murdered. Unfortunately the father had read too much, and tried being an amateur detective – and kept getting in the way of the professionals working the case until they threatened to lock him up for interfering. To my knowledge that murderer was never caught. Somehow, writers and readers getting involved doesn’t seem to work as well in real life as it does in books, movies, and on TV.

  5. Your post touches on something I consider one of the critical elements of mystery writing – the reason the detective agrees to solve a crime in the first place. It was really important to me to make my detective, Hiro, as human as possible, and as you point out, humans don’t usually opt for finding killers. One of my favorite aspects of mystery novels (and thrillers) is seeing how the author “forces” the detective to solve the crime. I love it when this is done well – and I’ve put books down when the amateur detective seemed “too eager” to jump in and hunt a killer.

    After all, as between “hunt the killer” and “go for Mexican food” any sane human opts for the churro every time.

  6. It’s about justice, but I think it’s also about the human brain and how it can figure things out, even difficult things. After all, in the Sherlock Holmes stories sometimes the crimes were pretty petty and sometimes there wasn’t a crime at all. But something very mysterious was figured out in the end, which is nice to see even when there’s no justice to mete out. As Philo Vance said once, “I’m no avenging angel, but I do detest an unsolved problem.”

    Could I be as cool as my detective character? I’m pretty sure no, but that’s also a factor with her, since sometimes “cool” shades over into “cold” with her. She’s very smart (smarter than me), but far from perfect.

    • I love Sherlock Holmes! It’s interesting to read classic mysteries and realize, as good as they are, they would never make it over the transom in today’s marketplace.

      • You see, if I was a professional, I’d have to read modern mysteries to understand my market. As an amateur, I mostly read the classics, and my stories, though set in a contemporary time, are somewhat old-fashioned, and feature a detective who consciously models herself on Holmes, Vance, Wolfe and the rest.

        Also, at least for me, the blog here seems to have lost its “Email me when there’s a Reply” checkbox. It seems to me that it used to have one but now I have to check back and see if there’s a reply to my comment. Is it just me?

  7. Anthony, yeah, something about WordPress changed last week. We lost a couple of features. I’ll let Susan know. She’s our Website Goddess.

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