Lately I’ve been burying myself in murder mysteries, and I’ve started to wonder why they are so appealing. I don’t like police procedurals unless they are set in a place I find interesting, like Ian Rankin’s novels in Edinburgh, or some of the older P.D. James’ novels (although hers are much more than police procedurals). I couldn’t put down the Stieg Larsson trilogy (“The Girl Who”) but have to admit I found it violent and overtly political. I liked it at the time but won’t read it again.
I like a good “cozy,” but it needs to be either one of the British classics (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, the immortal Dorothy Sayers), Rex Stout or a well-plotted and character-driven recent addition. I’m especially fond of Donna Leon’s series set in Venice, and the attention her Guido Brunetti pays to meals and to his former-radical wife. There are a lot of bad mystery novels out there–anything involving a recipe, a quaint/creepy nonexistent village or someone with a peculiar name is instantly suspect to me.
The big question is, why are mystery novels a satisfying small comfort? What do they do that romance novels, for example, do not? What need do they fill? I think mystery novels work for those of us who love them because they create a small world, people it with characters you can believe in, ask a question (who killed Roger Ackroyd?) and answer it in a logical and emotionally satisfying way. In most cases, the guilty are punished and the innocent released.
Some mystery novelists are able to make readers comfortable even when good does not prevail. Donna Leon’s novels have an extra twist; sometimes the evil are not punished due to the depravities of the Italian government and its corruption. The “Aurelio Zen” novels feature this as well.
Why is mystery more rewarding than romance? I’m not sure if it’s because some of us need logic, and others just don’t believe in Prince Charming any more. Maybe it’s just the pleasure of being lost in a complete, well-formed world with characters you care about, and mortal results. Maybe it’s that these books have order, in a world of disorder. What do you think?