We all love stories. And it turns out that some of the stories we love best are murder mysteries, stories about death and mayhem.
Neilson Bookscan, the service that provides data for the publishing industry, has just released sales figures for 2018 (compiled between December 3, 2017 and December 8, 2018). What kind of fiction books did people read in 2018?
The hands-down winner, by more than two to one, was murder mysteries. But there are lots of crimes, killings, and mayhem in other fiction books. What makes murder mysteries different?
Let’s take a look under the hood. To begin with, every murder mystery includes (indeed, must include) six elements:
1. The Murder. The first requirement of a murder mystery is a murder. Someone is murdered early on in the story, and that event is the engine that drives the rest of the story. It creates the big question the story needs to solve.
2. The Murderer. Somebody ends up murdered. Who done it?
3. A Detective or an Unofficial Detective Surrogate. Somebody (either officially or unofficially) undertakes to solve the murder and bring the murderer to justice.
There is a wide, almost unlimited, range of possible people to fill the role of “detective.” Successful murder mystery franchises have had detectives who were: blind, gay, Native American Navajo, women, a policeman with a heart transplant, a monk, a jockey, and a rock musician. To mention just a few!
The detective is often the person that we, as the reader, most identify with. They are not super-heroes! They often have individual flaws, and go through personal struggles, and difficulties, and sometimes great danger, that make it seem as though they won’t be able to discover the murderer.
4. The Setting and Context. As with the choice of detective, there is an almost unlimited range of possibilities here, from the arid stretches of the Navajo Nation to the bustling cacophonies of New York City. But believability is key for a murder mystery. The reader needs to believe in the reality of the fictional world she is entering. No magical realism here!
5. The Process. The process by which the detective identifies the killer must also be totally believable. No magic and no tricks. In a classic murder mystery, there are clues all along, but the writer obscures them with a little narrative prestidigitation.
When we come to the denouement, our reaction should be, “Oh, of course! Now I see it!” Once it’s all wrapped up, it should make complete sense. It should be obvious! We were trying to figure it all out and thought we had a tentative scenario. But just then the writer called our attention to a false clue, and we missed the real one. We headed right, and he veered left.
6. Reassurance. This, I believe, is the most important aspect of classic murder mysteries. But it’s hidden and unspoken. The classic murder mystery is as archetypal, in its way, as the Hero’s Journey.
It is the journey from fear to reassurance
In generic terms, the story begins when something terrible has happened. There is confusion, uncertainty, and fear, as the people affected try to determine how to respond.
Someone then steps up to take responsibility for solving the crime. That person may or may not be an official detective, but they accept the mantle and the challenge of finding the murderer.
They elect to “Make the Journey.” And by doing so they become our stand-ins as we ourselves are also vicariously invested in making the journey.
Several years ago, there was some very significant work that psychologists did, suggesting that the fairy tales children read have a very helpful effect on their emotional lives. The psychologists found that the fairy tales gave children a format that allowed them to deal with their fears and traumas and be less troubled by them.
In much the same way, murder mysteries may act as “fairy tales for adults.”
We live in a world beset by wars, violence, and myriad disasters. But murder mysteries may give us hope by telling us stories that begin with evil events, but call forth the efforts of people who can rise to heroic heights and reassure us that, with great effort, evil can be overcome. We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.
© 2019 David Evans.