The Mystery Novel: Our Fascination with Mysteries, Detectives, and Crimes

If you’re reading this, then there’s more than a good chance that mystery novels interest you. To those of you who read mystery stories and novels faithfully, does your heart thrash against your chest as the culprit is about to be revealed? Maybe you think you already know who did it. Does the identity of the culprit surprise you? Or were you suspicions confirmed all along?

Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Chandler are well-known for mastering the art of the mystery novel. But what makes these writers and their stories so successful? And why do we enjoy the thrill of solving a crime, or at least watching others solve them?

Agatha Christie, famed mystery novelist
Agatha Christie, famed mystery novelist

Most of us aren’t detectives. Of course, we can retrace our steps to find our misplaced phones or lost keys, but we don’t attempt to solve any heinous or difficult crimes on a daily basis. By reading a mystery novel, however, we can vicariously be a sleuth. We follow the detective as he or she probes a crime, questions suspects, and gathers evidence. We might also try to piece the puzzle together by employing the method of the detective. Whether we solve the crime on our own or not, we enjoy watching events unfold and the criminal revealed and caught (hopefully). We like closure, which is something that isn’t always possible in real life. We expect the detective to tie up the loose ends, and we hope that justice prevails.

However, it’s not all about justice and morals. Mystery novels also serve to entertain us. We enjoy the thrill of the chase, the narrow escapes, and maybe a bit of gore along the way. Even more, we like seeing the detective and his or her sidekick save the day and the criminals locked up.

But good mysteries go far beyond our desire to be entertained. They are a study of us and our world. The themes of justice and good and evil abound. We like to see criminals punished because it signals that order is restored to our world. A good mystery novel or story is as much an exploration of humanity as it is a source of fun and leisure. The way authors like Conan Doyle, Christie, and Chandler create their memorable detectives, sidekicks, and villains, and develop unique and interesting crimes is integral to the success of a mystery, both as entertainment and as an insight to the human condition.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the following books/stories: “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Copper Beeches,” The Murder on the Links, Murder on the Orient Express, Farewell, My Lovely, “The Final Problem,” “The Yellow Face.” Read at your own risk.

The Memorable Detective

In literature, the modern detective has origins in Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin who favors the use of reasoning over legwork (Poe xi). Detectives such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes were conceived in the same vein (Conan Doyle x). Like Dupin, Holmes uses reason to make inferences based on his observations. He is usually depicted conducting experiments or poring over books, adding to his already wide breadth of knowledge. In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia” (the story in which Irene Adler makes her first and only appearance in the literature), Holmes is also characterized as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine” and as having a “cold, precise but admirably balanced mind” (Conan Doyle 145).

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

We see more evidence of Holmes’ coldness in “The Copper Beeches. In the story, a governess is offered a position with unusual conditions, such as she should cut her hair short and wear clothes given to her by her employer. Holmes investigates and discovers that the governess has been hired to impersonate the daughter of the employer who has been locked up by her father in order to keep her from marrying. Watson notes that Holmes “manifested no further interest in [the governess] when once she ceased to be the centre of one of his problems” (Conan Doyle 310). Though Holmes often treats his clients with respect and aids them to the best of his ability, he ceases to have any personal interest in them once the case is solved.

That Holmes is depicted as a brilliant but cold man might explain why we are drawn to him. His apparent lack of emotion is compensated by his eccentricities. His seemingly uncanny ability to solve the most difficult or strange crime through the use of observation and reasoning makes him appear superhuman. How many of us know people who can do what Holmes does? We like to read about his exploits because not many of us can copy his methods or have witnessed them in real life. Maybe we admire the way Holmes uses logic and reason to trump emotion, even though his apparent lack of emotion (excluding his friendship with Watson) seems to make him inhuman.

Despite his eccentricities, even people who haven’t read a Sherlock Holmes story are familiar with his name and his methods. Holmes has made appearances on the silver screen, portrayed most recently by Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). The current television series Elementary and Sherlock follow the exploits of Holmes in the modern age. Readers and audiences alike are captivated by Holmes’ methods and adventures.

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes
Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes

As Holmes followed in Dupin’s footsteps, Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot followed in Holmes’. Christie admitted that she based Hercule Poirot and his companion Captain Arthur Hastings on Holmes and Watson (Conan Doyle xv). Like Holmes, Poirot is skilled in making observations and deductions. Whereas Holmes is often seen darting through London and the countryside, donning disguises and breaking into houses to apprehend the criminal, Poirot is more content to think through a problem. Part three of Murder on the Orient Express is titled “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks” (Murder on the Orient Express 229). Additionally, in The Murder on the Links, Poirot describes the French detective Giraud who is trying to solve the same murder as a “human foxhound” (The Murder on the Links 53); Giraud’s methods are much more hands on than his own. To this end, Poirot tells Hastings, “‘Leave Giraud to his search, and me to my ideas’” (The Murder on the Links 54).

Poirot has other eccentricities as well. Descriptions of him almost always mention his egg-shaped head and manicured moustache, which leads others to judge him on these traits rather than his brilliance: “What an egg-shaped head he had […] Mary Debenham smiled. A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously” (Murder on the Orient Express 7). His physical characteristics are also the subject of humor: “Hercule Poirot addressed himself to the task of keeping his moustaches out of the soup” (Murder on the Orient Express 18).

The reader comes to enjoy Poirot, quirks and all, because that is what makes him interesting. Like Holmes, we can’t always identify with Poirot’s intelligence, but we can surely admire it. We know that Poirot will always solve the case, but we enjoy watching him coolly and calmly piece the puzzle together.

Though Poirot and Holmes can be easily compared with one another, Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe stands out. He is a private investigator, much like Poirot and Holmes, but he traverses the streets of Los Angeles and is written about in the first person. We have direct access to his thoughts and emotions. Marlowe’s methods are more hands on than Poirot’s but not as eccentric as Holmes.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in ITV's drama Agatha Christie's Poirot
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot in ITV’s drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot

Chandler wrote for pulp magazines, and from the stories in these magazines Marlowe was born. In the novels, Marlowe is seen as street wise, sarcastic, and witty, as well as intelligent. Though he seems tough and jaded, he breaks from the “tough guy” detective mold who never shows emotion or admits that he has a sensitive side. Marlowe is thoughtful and educated. For instance, in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe taunts a cop by repeatedly calling him “Hemingway.” The cop replies at one point, “‘Who is this Hemingway person at all?’” (Chandler 164). Marlowe replies, “‘A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good’” (Chandler 164). Marlowe’s answer is both sarcastic and smart, owing to the fact that he knows Hemingway and is making fun of the cop’s intelligence.

Marlowe also has a way with descriptions and words, and it gives him depth as a character. The first-person style allows the reader to get a sense of the kind of man that Marlowe is, just by reading his descriptions of the setting: “It was a nice walk if you like grunting. There were two hundred and eighty steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly” (Chandler 47). His sarcasm is again apparent, but by comparing a wet handrail to a toad’s belly, we might find something oddly poetic and meaningful in the way he describes his world.

In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe describes the smell of a henchman: “His smell was the earthy smell of primitive men, and not the slimy dirt of cities” (Chandler 141). The smell of the man is very pungent and seems to overwhelm any other aspect of the man: “An occasional whiff of his personality drifted back to me” (Chandler 144).

And yet, Marlowe’s cleverness goes beyond witty remarks and poetic descriptions. In Farewell, My Lovely, he manages to weave two unrelated cases together. The novel begins with his encounter with a man looking for an ex-girlfriend. Later, Marlowe is hired to assist in the retrieval of stolen jewels; however, one of his business cards given to a woman involved in the missing girlfriend case ends up in the wallet of a murdered man in the stolen jewel case (Chandler 287). The link between the cases may not be apparent to the reader, but the tiny threads that bind the two together are teased out by Marlowe in a subtle manner.

Author Raymond Chandler
Author Raymond Chandler

Of Holmes, Poirot, and Marlowe, Marlowe is perhaps the most realistic detective because he may be the easiest with whom the reader can identify. This is perhaps because the novels in which he appears are written in the first person, and the reader is able to get inside his head and study his motivations. Maybe it is because he is not a superhuman sleuthing machine. Oftentimes, he just seems to be trying to make rent.

A memorable, likeable, and interesting detective is integral to the success of a mystery novel (though not every mystery novel has a detective, but we should at least be interested in the people solving the crime). We have to believe that the detective is someone we can rely on to solve the crime and give us satisfying solutions. We also want to be able to relate to them, though with figures like Sherlock Holmes we find that a bit difficult. Hence, we might latch onto other characters to fulfill this need.

Sidekicks

Both Holmes and Poirot have a companion who serves as a chronicler of their adventures, as well as a sound board on which the detective can try ideas and clarify any points of confusion. These companions ask questions that the reader might ask and press the detective to explain their thought process.

Doctor John Watson is perhaps one of the most famous of these literary sidekicks. Most of Holmes’ adventures are retold by Watson as he contemplates the past. He also serves as a foil to Holmes, imbuing each story with the dose of humanity that Holmes lacks. As a character, he is much more accessible. He finds love in the novel The Sign of Four, and in between cases he continues to practice medicine. His admiration for Holmes is shared by the reader, as is his lack of observation skills, which highlights Holmes’ brilliance. He also seems to be one of the few people close to Holmes, saddened by his supposed death in “The Final Problem.” The reader is more likely to understand Watson’s thoughts and motivations than he or she is to understand Holmes. Although we admire Holmes and maybe wish we were like him, Watson is the anchor that keeps us grounded in reality.

Unlike Watson, who appears in the majority of the Holmes stories, Arthur Hastings appears in very few stories alongside Poirot. Due to his limited number of appearances in the stories and novels, it seems that Christie saw little use for Hastings as a sidekick; some of Christie’s most well-known Poirot stories, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, do not feature Hastings at all.

Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson
Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson

When he does appear, Hastings is characterized as being more impulsive than Poirot, often choosing to jump to conclusions rather than think through the problem. Being a former soldier, he is also a man of action, as evidenced by his preference for the methods of the detective Giraud in The Murder on the Links. Poirot tends to mock Hastings’ intelligence, though he does so in a friendly manner. At times, the reader is able to follow Poirot’s reasoning; while at other times, we feel just as lost.

In contrast to Holmes and Poirot, Philip Marlowe has no sidekick. As the novels in which he appears are written in first person, the reader can follow his thoughts and emotions and judge what kind of man he is. He has a strained relationship with the police in particular, though he often has to share investigations with them. In Farewell, My Lovely, after having a conversation with a detective, Marlowe states, “I held the dead phone and snarled into it: ‘Seventeen hundred and fifty cops in this town and they want me to do their leg work for them’” (Chandler 45). He feels does the brunt of the work and would rather not share his investigations. When he does work with police, Marlowe tends to loosen them up (though he does this to other people as well) or he cooperates, albeit grudgingly.

Villains

In terms of literary villains, Professor James Moriarty is one of the most famous, being nearly as famous as Holmes himself. Moriarty is a criminal mastermind who shares Holmes’ high level of intelligence. He is also the archetype of evil. Whereas Holmes uses his “powers” for good and embodies justice, Moriarty operates an extensive criminal network and represents chaos and destruction. He is described in “The Final Problem” as the “Napoleon of crime” and as “a spider in the centre of its web” (Conan Doyle 440). He provides Holmes an intellectual equal and challenges the infamous detective like he’s never been challenged before.

Additionally, though she’s not really a villain, Irene Adler is the only woman that Sherlock Holmes ever takes notice of. She is The Woman because she beats him at his own game. She has a compromising picture of the King of Bohemia, which Holmes is tasked to retrieve. However, she outsmarts Holmes and leaves the country before he can confront her. Watson notes that Holmes “used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler […] it is always under the honourable title of the woman” (Conan Doyle 159). She elicits a high degree of respect from Holmes because she is of the same caliber as he is. She also challenges our notions of who is considered a criminal. Though Adler keep the picture, she only keep it for her own protection, not to blackmail the King.

Professor Moriarty as illustrated by Sidney Paget. This image appeared with the first publication of "The Final Problem."
Professor Moriarty as illustrated by Sidney Paget. This image appeared with the first publication of “The Final Problem.”

What characters like Moriarty and Adler do is challenge Holmes. We like to see him tested and even beaten by someone of equal intelligence and capability. Having characters such as these raises the stakes for us as the reader; Holmes is not alone. There are other people like him, who prove that he is not undefeatable. In a way, it also makes him more human. He is capable of suffering loss and defeat like the rest of us.

Villains in the worlds of Poirot and Marlowe differ. There aren’t any villains who readily leap to mind or who are as well-known as the detective himself. This doesn’t mean that these detectives don’t come face to face with evil or cunning individuals. In Murder on the Orient Express, the murdered man Cassetti (masquerading under the alias Ratchett) is known to be responsible for the kidnapping and murder of a child. He escaped justice and is killed by the family and relations of the child.

Upon meeting him before his murder, Poirot senses there is something evil about him. Cassetti fears for his life and tries to hire Poirot. Poirot refuses Cassetti’s offer, stating, “‘If you will forgive me for being personal—I do not like your face, M. Ratchett’” (Murder on the Orient Express 36). Though Poirot discovers who killed Cassetti, he decides that the real crime seems to be the heinous murder of an innocent girl. The murder of Cassetti is then more an act of justice than an act of cruelty. Poirot’s decision to aid his murderers signals to the reader that justice comes in many forms, not just arrests and trials.

The criminals that Marlowe faces in Farewell, My Lovely aren’t kidnappers or brilliant masterminds. They fall more along the lines of thugs, gamblers, femme fatales, and crooked cops. In his murder investigation, the murderer is the same woman being sought by her ex-boyfriend. She has been hiding in plain sight all along, though she changed her name and married. Hence, in Marlowe’s world, there are a lot of shady characters– some worse than others. The real fun is watching Marlowe navigate between these people, using his wits to decipher friend from foe. Though not every criminal he encounters is arrested, Marlowe solves his case. He seems to understand that not every criminal can be brought to justice quickly, if at all.

The Crime

As a reader, we want interesting and unique crimes and cases. Maybe some of us fancy a depraved or gruesome crime, not because we love blood and death for their own sake but because we want an interesting puzzle. We want the detective to dole out some form of justice. But the most memorable of crimes are the ones that are difficult to solve or question our concepts of right and wrong.

Though there are many interesting Holmes stories, take the aforementioned story “The Copper Beeches” as an example. The governess finds herself in a well-paid job with strange conditions. Though she cuts her hair, she finds hair matching her own color in a drawer, and when she investigates the supposedly abandoned wing of the house, her employer becomes angry. Holmes puts the pieces together and discovers that the employer has locked up his daughter to keep her from marrying and taking her inheritance with her. The governess is meant to pose as the daughter, in order to keep the fiancée at bay.

In another Holmes story, “The Yellow Face,” a man becomes suspicious of his wife. He finds out she is visiting a house down the road and follows her. In the upstairs window, he sees a grinning, yellow face in the window. He suspects his wife’s first husband has come back to blackmail her. Holmes suspects the same, but it turns out that the woman had a child from her first marriage to a black man. She made the child wear a mask because she didn’t know how her husband would react if he discovered the race of the child. This particular case is interesting because Holmes doesn’t reach the right conclusion. It also ends rather happily, as the man accepts his wife’s child as his own.

On the other hand, in Murder on the Orient Express, the murder of the child-killer is unique because no one can prove who did it. Twelve passengers on the train each stab Cassetti in order to conceal who delivered the fatal blow. Poirot discovers that the twelve people were related to the family of the dead child. Instead of demanding the arrest of the twelve train passengers, Poirot blurs the lines of right and wrong and helps them cover up the crime. He presents a theory that a stranger boarded the train in the snow storm, killed Cassetti, and escaped.

Book Cover for Murder on the Orient Express
Book Cover for Murder on the Orient Express

In Farewell, My Lovely, not only do we get to see how different cases fit together, but we also get to enjoy some of the elements found in a Hollywood detective film. Marlowe must contend with beautiful yet dangerous women; he is bashed on the head a few times; he escapes from a private hospital run by gangsters; and sneaks aboard a gambling boat. Marlowe’s escapades may be more theatrical than his European counterparts Holmes and Poirot, which gives him a distinct American flavor.

Conclusions

So why do we love a good mystery? Is it because we are fascinated by the people able to solve these crimes? Or do we enjoy watching the detective interact with other characters? Maybe we enjoy seeing a difficult case unravel. Really, it’s all of the above, and these are just three components that make up a good mystery story: the skill of the author is another important factor in the creation and enjoyment of such stories.

However, the urge to solve a good mystery seems to be part of human nature. We don’t like unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts. We see a puzzle, and we need to solve it. Aren’t we always asking about the meaning of life or wondering what happens after death? Reading a mystery novel might be one way we can satisfy our curiosity; instead of asking what’s the meaning of life, we ask who did it and why? We find a bit of closure by reading mysteries and having the crime neatly solved. We benefit from having good and evil laid out for us in black and white. We have our detectives on one side and our villains on the other. However, we have people who cross into the grey area, like Irene Adler and even Poirot.

Mystery novels and stories might just be one way we try to make sense of our world, though the clear cut lines of good and bad, moral and immoral aren’t always maintained. Like all literature, they are a reflection of us and our world. We always hope that evildoers are brought to justice and that there are people who devote themselves to keeping us safe, but the right course of action isn’t always obvious, even in stories.

Works Cited

Chandler, Raymond. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940.New York: First Vintage Crime/ Black Lizard Edition, 1992. Print.

Christie, Agatha. Murder on the Orient Express. 1934.New York: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.

—. The Murder on the Links. 1923. New York: Berkley Books, 1986. Print.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Greatest Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Fall River Press, 2012. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poem. New York: Fall River Press, 2012. Print.

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44 Comments

  1. Jemarc Axinto

    Personally I love it when we get to the end of a mystery novel and all of the pieces go together so perfectly!

  2. I love a good mystery. The reader is always trying to figure it out along with the sleuth. It’s very gratifying in the end if all the clues suddenly make sense. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Mystery novels create order out of disorder and that is what I like about them most.

  4. Eulalia Alicea
    0

    Lovely piece. I think most times, crime fiction can offer the “story behind the story,” that the news can’t and tries to make sense of things by looking deeper into the situations that led up to the events.

  5. Good post… as always.

  6. M.Singh
    0

    A reason why murder mysteries are so popular is the “happy” ending. Justice is always served, in that the killer is found out and caught, unlike real life so many times.

    The same is true of romance novels really, in which the happy ending is that the hero and heroine always get together by the end. In a screwy, mixed-up world, happy endings can be very comforting.

  7. well i have never read a good murder mystery book in my life, there only a few ways they can end, and the killer is always like the brother of the guy murder or wife, ext, or the pizza guy or the gas station guy, or the business partner. its either one of the main characters or one of the side characters. if you pay attention not really hard to guess who.

    • The people who are very good at mystery writing make it seem almost simple and yet their work is compelling and page turning…

  8. I like action books

  9. A day dream part of me would love to be a federal agent chasing down serial killers. I’ve decided to write about it, rather than the reality which probably isn’t that crash hot. If I can pull others into a world that excites and horrifies them, I’m happy.

  10. Amena Banu

    I always think of the brilliance of the author when it comes to mystery novels. The author’s ability to weave both a mystery and a unique way of solving it, while also tying up the loose ends, is really laudable.

  11. Personally, I really enjoyed reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue. As the first modern detective story, you can see Poe’s novelty in establishing the tropes of the eccentric detective and the narrating sidekick. And, while some people are put off by the unusual ending, which lacks a villain in the traditional sense, I think it raises wider issues about human society: the divide between intelligence and strength or the natural and the artificial. I hope that hasn’t given too much away for those who haven’t read it…

  12. The crime genre is certainly a fascinating one. The way they pull us in is by giving us virtual control of the narrative. The lead character is normally an enviable and empathetic individual. Despite the quirks, all eyes are on them and the talents are almost always extraordinary. From there, we can imagine how we would act and react in their stories.

  13. Hal Otis
    0

    It is stimulating to try and pick up on the clues the author leaves.

  14. It is one of the few genres of literature that invites the reader into the story to find the culprit as well. Who doesn’t love mysteries.

  15. Mikel Cheng
    0

    Most readers are more engaged in reading if they are actively involved and questioning the text. Mystery novels make this much easier.

  16. VitaDawkins
    0

    I would recommend Peter Ackroyd’s “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem”. Can’t really tell you why without giving the game away, but believe me, you won’t be wasting your time.

  17. Nakisha
    0

    One of the great draws of a mystery series is following the growth of the main protagonist as they get in and out of trouble. I also like a setting strong enough for me to feel like I’m there.

  18. Justice is one of the main reasons why I enjoy mysteries. Seeing how it is brought forth and why it was needed in the first place. Whether the case is solved by traditional methods or in some vigilante fashion, the bottom line is that we love to see justice prevail. 😉

  19. I’m currently slashing away with my mini-razor (yet again!) at my first mystery, which I totally pantsed.

  20. I’m not really one for crime fiction, but Capote’s In Cold Blood really was something else. Incredible.

  21. Mystery books…. well they are pretty much like a person. A person who is hard to read and who is different from the rest. You want to get to know them, but you don’t know what they are going to say or do. So you spend your time to study them until you finally think you have an idea of who or what they are like, but you still cant quite seem to figure out what it is about that specific person. Their uniqueness’ is so intriguing that your captivated. Well its not like Ive come across someone like that and it seems pretty stalker-ish but its nothing like that.

  22. Devin Catalano
    0

    Who doesn’t love an intellectual challenge!

  23. JudeSuggs
    0

    We all love-hate mystery books. There are always twists and turns that you dont expect and they keep you on edge, and then in the end they surprise you because you didnt expect that character to be or do.

  24. M. A. Comley’s Justice series is a favorite of mine. Character driven with great plots.

  25. McCaggers

    Really great article! The mystery novel have always been a favorite of mine. But I wasn’t aware how much I wasn’t noticing. Thank you!

  26. Some interesting and valid points here.

  27. While they are an escape from reality, mysteries are, in a sense, are a simulated reality that the reader can control

  28. Nice piece on Mystery Novels. They leave me on the edge of my seat wanting more.

  29. We all LOVE solving problems and bringing closure to situations. It is the way our brain works by nature.

  30. I personally like to read a mystery for a couple of reasons, one is that they usually involve clues that you have to put together like a puzzle. Another reason is that most good mysteries allow you to “get away” from the real world for a short time!

  31. Myrta Metzler
    0

    I love mystery stories. I always have. When I was young I read Nancy Drew, and when I got older I read Nero Wolfe.

  32. I just finished reading Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. While it’s not strictly a Mystery Novel, it does contain many of the attributes you’ve discussed here. Strangely enough, that page-turning suspense is not quite there and I don’t think the ending will satisfy those justice seekers. Instead, the “mystery” is solved and both the detective and the criminal go on living the same way they always have. In this case, the failure to bring villains to justice is probably illustrating a still existing villain/problem in our current world.

  33. The concept of this article was very intriguing to me. Personally I believe that mysteries are such a hit because the bad guy is caught 99% of the time. Sadly, you don’t see those results in real life.

  34. I took a class over the summer all about crime and mystery novels. We studied Doyle and Christie. The discussions we had about Sherlock Holmes were my favorite, and I especially liked the idea that we are obsessed with detectives because of their flaws. Yes, that sounds weird. We’re mostly obsessed with them because of their incredible abilities to put things together in a way we cannot or have no way in real life to. But when they have flaws, like Sherlock and his drug issue, that makes them more realistic and relatable. We can feel a little more on their level when they are flawed.

  35. bzukovich657

    I think your article is very interesting and you explore some very fascinating human behaviors/tendencies. Being a huge fan of mysteries and detective novels (as well as tv shows), I have to say that I like understanding the detective process as well as the criminal process. It is quite dark to admit that, right? But that is what keeps readers hooked!

  36. Liz Watkins

    I am still amazed at how well received Agatha Christie’s novels are still today. And that is a good kind of amazed. With all of our technology and CSI shows, we still like the basic mystery, and it’s the realization that it is usually someone we know and trust who is behind the murder that is intriguing.

  37. My love of murder mysteries began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys! There is something fulfilling about an ending where the crime is solved and evil is stopped. Yet, great series weave in secondary storylines that are left unresolved where you can’t wait for the author to publish the next book. The characters become familiar to the reader, and we become invested in their growth, their vulnerabilities and their flaws. Although readers want “unique crimes and cases,” I also like unique settings where I am immersed in a new place (New Jersey, rural Montana, Ireland etc.) or profession (bounty hunter, sheriff, ex-garda, for example.

  38. I quite enjoyed your survey of mystery novels! Something I would add is not dealing with the characters but how the overall narrative structure changes in different kinds of mystery or detective novels. Todorov maintains that there are not just two but three tracts of evolution within the detective genre, all of which depend on which order the narratives are told. He characterizes the two stories as “the first – the story of the crime – tells ‘what really happened’ whereas the second – the story of the investigation – explains ‘how the reader (or the narrator) has come to know about it” (Poetics of Prose p. 45). If it is told in this order, it is a whodunit. The reader learns of the crime after it has been committed. If the narrative has the two stories reversed, the story becomes a thriller, told in the present tense with the crime or action occurring in the present tense. The third and final version is the suspense novel which is a hybrid of both types, maintaining the mystery and interest in the past of the whodunit while also concentrating upon the future and what will happen to the characters. Due to the presence of all three of these types, if the Sherlock Holmes canon proves anything, its that all three of these are not “stages of an evolution” because they exist simultaneously and within the same body of work.

  39. Ben Hufbauer

    Thanks for this article. I really enjoyed and agreed with your analysis, including esp. this conclusion: “instead of asking what’s the meaning of life, we ask who did it and why? We find a bit of closure by reading mysteries and having the crime neatly solved.”

  40. As a lover of the latest Sherlock Holmes embodied by Cumberbatch, as well as any good crime/detective story or thriller, I enjoyed reading your detailed analysis of these three particular characters and the story worlds they live in. I had always attributed my enjoyment of the genre with its many twists and reveals to my own difficulty as a writer to create plot-driven stories. Your article got me thinking again, and before reaching the end, I arrived at a similar conclusion: it’s the answers. The comforting promise that there exists some sort of equation in our confusing world – with a solution at the end. And while criminal tales often reveal rather dark parts of humanity, they also give us reasons. So it’s not so much about WHO did it, but really about WHY. When the criminal’s character is 3-dimensional and their motive is strong, it’s a key to understanding at least a little bit better how the “bad” happened to arrive in our world.

  41. The crime novel is definitely a highly conservative genre for people that crave the neatness of a happy ending. It’s interesting that you pointed out how human our need is for this ending, and yet how incredibly superhuman the detective often is. The detective’s unique ability to see what other characters miss puts him (or her) at the level of the Divine. I think this genre is so sacred to readers because it reassures us that in a world where parents, policemen and judges can’t always distinguish right from wrong, on a quasi-spiritual level, justice can still be done.

  42. You raise some interesting points. I especially liked the idea that even the “cozier” mysteries like Christie’s present an ambiguous view of the police and justice system. I would expect a noir to express such opinions, but I was surprised when you demonstrated that a Poirot novel suggests that “justice comes in many forms, not just arrests and trials”.
    As a side note, I get quite a bit of enjoyment out of the setting in detective stories. for example, the juxtaposition of a city’s law abiding face and its criminal underworld can be fascinating.

  43. The inter-connectivity of these icons of mystery is so exciting to me. At my local library, the mystery novels are labeled with a sticker with the silhouette of Sherlock Holmes. That’s how hugely he has played a part in our culture, he acts as the signifier for an entire genre! It’s really interesting to trace the influences from these early detectives to modern television crime dramas and even Batman!

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