Why Do Readers Enjoy The Detective Genre so much?
Detective fiction as a subgenre of crime fiction arose in 1841 with the publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe. It was through the eccentric character of Auguste Dupin that the word ‘detective’ entered the vernacular of the English language. You can see elements of Dupin in future depictions of the ‘detective’ – a character who uses deduction to figure out the answer to the mystery.
While Poe created the genre, it was Arthur Conan Doyle that ensured its continued success in the world of literature. Doyle wrote 50 books with Holmes and Watson. The popularity of these books was so great that when Doyle sought to end the story of Sherlock Holmes, there was such a public outcry that Doyle brought the famous detective back to life, although begrudgingly.
Study In Scarlet was released in 1887 and since then, the number of books published as detective fiction has only grown. People enjoy writing it just as much as people enjoy reading it. However, this brings us to the question of why.
Why is this genre so popular? What was it about the character of the detective and the mysteries they solve that spoke so strongly to the populous?
A similar phenomenon can be seen in true crime shows and podcasts, which have grown immensely in popularity since the introduction of streaming services. As these shows take a narrative turn to convey the story of these crimes, they are usually similarly structured to a book – each episode a chapter, ending with a cliff-hanger to keep you watching. As such, we can relate our psychological responses to these shows to books.
In an article for Rasmussen College, Janice Holly Booth, author of A Voice Out of Nowhere: Inside the Mind of A Mass Murder, suggested, “We all possess a dark side, although I would say most are light grey as opposed to inky black, and maybe that’s why so many of us are obsessed with the sinister doings of others.” Whilst attorney Marc Lamber said, “Because crime is foreign to most, the fascination with it and similar genres stems from the public’s curiosity regarding what would possess others to engage in criminal conduct, what it looks like and what happens as a consequence.”
Though there is a line between fiction and reality, both can be considered ‘safe ways’ to address the macabre. Professor of Sociology and Criminology Scott Bonn explained in Psychology Today, “As a source of popular-culture entertainment, serial killers allow us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment, where the threat is exciting, but not real.”
There is also a want to find out more to protect oneself. Amanda Vicary, associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University, told Huffington Post, “By learning about murders — who is more likely to be a murderer, how do these crimes happen, who are the victims, etc. — people are also learning about ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves.”
While there is the psychological impact of the topic, there are also literary choices that an author makes. Perhaps one of the most important would be the person the author chooses to tell the story from. If we were to read Hound of the Baskervilles in Sherlock’s point of view, chances are the story wouldn’t have the same effect. The character of Sherlock Holmes is brilliance. He is the always the smartest person in the room. He notices things and deduces in seconds. Would the books continue to be as interesting if we knew everything in moments after a page of exposition? It is unlikely.
This is where Watson comes in. A character that Poe lacked in his three Dupin stories, John Watson is the reader character within the book. They are the character that helps carry the audience through the story. According to an article by Sanford Binns, “Holmes would have been explaining his thought process as he went along, thus solving the case in the middle of the story for himself, rather than solving it for the reader at the end. Furthermore, Holmes inevitably would have been calling attention to his own intelligence, thus appearing insufferably conceited and hence unappealing to the reader. Superior intelligence is a more appealing trait when it is observed by others than proclaimed by the savant himself.”
In any story, the reader-character needs to ensure empathy between themselves and the reader. In the example of Sherlock Holmes, Watson’s lack of analytical deduction skills is a benefit to the story.
That isn’t the say that telling a story as the detective doesn’t have the same impact. The most iconic of murder mystery authors is Agatha Christie, a woman who wrote countless stories in the point of view of many different detective characters. Poirot and Miss Marple aren’t fantastical investigators with borderline superhuman abilities but they are good at piecing clues together. As you read, you are piecing them together as well, making reason and deductions at the same as the detective themselves.
These stories are told from third person omnipresent rather than first-person, thus allowing Christie to jump around, reveal to the reader clues to solve the crime before the detectives themselves.
Arguably, this is part of the draw of detective fiction – trying to figure out the crime before the detective calls all the suspects into the room and points a finger at the perpetrator. But why is this so effective?
Christopher Badcock, author of The Imprinted Brain commented in Psychology Today, “the remarkable success and continuing fascination of detective fiction might find an explanation in the way in which it combines extremes…Paranoid suspicion and credulity for conspiracies is wholly appropriate—particularly in murder mysteries—and naming, blaming and shaming—a crucial if cruel mentalistic tool where influencing others is concerned—is epitomized in the revelation of the culprit on the climactic final page of the detective novel.”
A successful and rememberable piece of detective fiction can be made by the skill in which the author releases information for the investigators and the reader. A big reason for this may be because of the brain and its relationship with puzzles. Marcel Dansei, professor of semiotics and anthropology at the University of Toronto, said, “Puzzles play with words, numbers, shapes, and logic in a way that impels us to uncover the solutions that they hide. We are thus engaged in a mental hunt for something, much like a detective in mystery stories or a scientist looking for the reason behind some phenomenon.”
This may also have an impact on why readers may feel cheated if foreshadowing and red herrings aren’t appropriately used in a story. Dansei added, “Puzzles are small-scale versions of this ‘quest for understanding,’ even though there is nothing new at the end of the hunt when a solution is uncovered. It is the hunt itself that is likely to stimulate various areas of the brain that involve discovery and a sense of satisfaction at once.” A disappointing or inadequate journey to the climax of a detective novel will make the entire story lackluster.
So why do we enjoy the detective genre so much? It is a combination of curiosity into the darker side of humanity that influences our general interest into true crimes and murder mysteries. Our brains want to connect pieces together to solve the puzzle innately. In terms of literature, it is about the skill of the author to ensure that readers have to correct information, at the right time, to solve that mystery.
What do you think? Leave a comment.