I’ve been devouring murder mysteries for as long as I can remember. In school, I used to pick up mildly-thick Agatha Christie books like I was dying of starvation. They introduced me to old English village life, the glamour of the legendary Savoy Hotel, Piccadilly Circus, and leisurely upper-class English squire life.
I (figuratively) bit into the depth to which the parsley sank (if you know, you know) whilst paging through Sherlock Holmes tomes, and frantically typed up ‘best murder mystery writers’ on Google once I had exhausted my supply of known good writers.
Reading a murder mystery book – or even watching even a TV mystery for that matter – follows much the same pattern. You start reading with anticipation, perhaps a cup of coffee and a plate of Oreos next to you to provide fortification for what is soon to become an all-consuming episode (fingers crossed!). The story starts with either a dramatic proclamation — a la Agatha Christie’s famous book which starts with an ominous question uttered by a dying man, “With his last breath the man gasps, ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?'”, or some other sort of dramatic overture. Then, the author proceeds to introduce us to the main cast of characters with delightfully relevant insights carefully underlaid, to be revealed with lots of flourishes near the end. And if you’re an avid mystery reader worth your salt, you’ll lap this all up – just like I routinely do. It’s part of the act, you see, and everything is fair in the land of whodunnits.
But I digress. Continuing with our theme, we move deeper into the meat of the story after we’ve shaken hands with all the pivotal and not-so-pivotal characters. There are dark secrets to be uncovered, emotions that need to float to the surface, jealousies and envies to be poked and prodded, and morality to be dished up. This is the part where the “incident” happens. A man is held at gunpoint, a woman is pushed over the cliff, a body is found in the library, a tragedy grips the household in the middle of snowy winter – et al. The characters, up til now, merely going about their business, are thrown together and the human drama nears crescendo.
We reach a sort of impasse – the story trudges forward without a lot of insights being shed, and we enter the frenzy mode. Who did it? How? What’s the motive? The cast of characters is hurriedly parsed and we examine each in turn. With much fanfare, the detective/inspector/amateur sleuth then makes his or her entry. This person will usually have an air of superiority and, more often than not, alarming eccentricities. I’m thinking here specifically of J.K. Rowling’s semi-famous, scarred detective called CB Strike who sleeps in his office and has a prosthetic leg. He smokes like a chimney and is usually morose. I’m still not clear about how he pays the rent. That sort of thing.
At any rate, the detective arrives and the wheels of murder mystery justice begin to spin. He/she digs up hitherto undiscovered clues, flips the lid on multiple juicy family secrets with a complete and deliciously refreshing indifference. Needless to say, we love that about them. We begin to see the light – dimly, and at a distance. After lots of back and forth, we fixate on the one who is least likely to have done it. Why? Because we’ve learned our lesson about suspecting the one who is most likely.
At this point, you are hooked and there is no escape. You can neither put the book down nor can you bear the suspense. You will read late into the night, take your Kindle or paperback into the loo with you, walk around hallways with your nose inside the pages of the book and you will eat a sandwich one-handed. The blood is well and truly in the water now and you’ve scented it. If it’s a longish book, at this point you’ll see a couple more murders (or stabbings and near-misses at the very least). This usually happens to erstwhile suspects you already know are hiding some crucial piece of evidence that will lay bare the whole affair.
We then trudge and grind towards the end. A literal, real-life murder could happen in front of our eyes and we still won’t be able to tear our eyes away from our book/TV screen now.
In fact, my most recent Netflix binge was the satirical show The Woman in The House Across The Street From The Girl in The Window. In this eight-episode comic take on the genre of mysteries, the protagonist is a troubled woman grappling with her daughter’s death and subsequent divorce. She combines wine with an array of heavy medication and we, the readers, are by turns persuaded that she saw someone murdered, then that she hallucinated the whole thing, and then that the murder actually took place.
I’ve often wondered why I subject myself to this frenzy of feeding myself book after book or series after series. The answer is both simple and complex. Our brains love patterns. We like to slip on our own private, shiny amateur detective hats. It makes us feel entertained and more importantly, in control of at least a set of imaginary scenarios. Our boss may just be making our life painful and we may still not be eating healthy, but we’re still getting a fly-on-the-wall view of a massively interesting and simultaneously baffling situation. We get a 360-degree view of lives that are not our own.
In real life, our views are only ever narrow and one-dimensional. We sometimes never get closure in reality, and yet closure is all but guaranteed when we pick up a murder mystery. Whether our favourite characters get the gallows or not, we always win. And that makes the frenzy more than worthwhile.
Mehar Luthra is a 28-year-old coffeeholic currently living in the always-rainy town of Galway, Ireland. Not nearly as anxious anymore. Survives on pancakes and will work for Nutella.
Featured image: Alfons Morales/Unsplash