Looking for a book that you can’t bear to put down? Here are five great mystery novels:
2) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
3) The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah
4) Queen of the South by Arturo Perez-Reverte
5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
For a long time I feared revealing my love for this genre. While I enjoy reading in general whether it is Philosophy, History, Politics, or Literature, I confess that when the urge to unwind calls, I tend to delve into a good mystery. (If the book is truly absorbing I have been known to refuse phone calls, eating, and speaking to my husband until I find out who did it.) But why have I felt such sheepishness about this past time?
During my graduate school years researching Existentialism, I read in one of Beauvoir’s letters (my philosophy hero–nerd alert!) to Sartre that she was sitting down at cafe in Paris indulging in a mystery novel. My initial reaction was relief: if she enjoys them then why should I shy away from them? However the next line in her letter described a hasty move to shove it into her purse when a fellow Professor bumped into her at the cafe. She felt embarrassed to be caught with such a book! (The Professor was the esteemed Merleau-Ponty.)
What is it that draws people to this genre and why is it sometimes shunned by the literary elite?
I suspect that the mystery’s inherent nature to be plot driven rather than character driven is part of the issue. Generally speaking, you won’t find a grand treatise on culture or new views of the world as you would find in something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. But let us consider what one does find:
1) Great mystery novels appeal to our love for puzzles and problem solving. The structure must be logical for it to work.
2) An element of psychology often weaves its way through the book. Motives are examined and deconstructed.
3) They keep us in the mode of critical thinking. The reader is, in a sense, another character trying to solve the case.
4) When the guilty person is revealed, we marvel at the construction of the story that navigated through potential variations in order to accomplish this result.
On a final note, last year I had the pleasure of hearing Jan Burke, author of the Irene Kelly Series, give a lecture. She addressed the question of the status of this genre in an intriguing, philosophical way. At once defending and asserting its validity as a genre she said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that murder is the one crime where the victim is eliminated. It constitutes the one crime where the victim cannot speak for herself. Murder, then, requires society to step in for the victim to seek justice. The mystery genre works because it illuminates this idea; that is, justice for the one who can no longer speak sits at the very heart of these books.
So, dear fellow readers, delve in, enjoy, and contemplate!
*Note, The Brothers Karamazov and The Mill on the Floss are part of my “Top Classical Novels” list.