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Why We Love Mystery Novels: Murder, Mayhem, and Cultural Mirrors

I was breakfasting on scrambled eggs this morning while reading about children who were murdered in their sleep.

“Good book, honey?” my husband asked.

When I told him what it was about, he shook his head and beat a hasty retreat.

The older I get, the more I love mystery novels. I’m clearly not alone. A few years ago, I celebrated my daughter’s high school graduation by taking her on one of those el-cheapo cruises from Boston to Bermuda. At first it was every nightmare described in David Foster Wallace’s essay about cruise ships, right down to the “suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh.”

Then I discovered a very important fact about cruise ships: when you get tired of listening to the steel drums and dancing in that conga line around the pool on the top deck, you can join the mystery readers two decks down. There, you can happily tuck under a blanket on a shady lounge chair and read about bodies being tossed everywhere from car trunks to, yes, the open sea.

Most of us who are avid readers as adults probably cut our teeth on mysteries. For me, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew led the way. Through my grandfather, I discovered Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers in my teens.

I drifted away from mysteries for a while, delving deeply into literary fiction as I proceeded through college and graduate school. Once I started having children, though, I returned to the mystery genre as my go-to escape from mundane matters such as toddler tantrums and vacuuming.

You might think any loving mom like me would steer clear of murder. You would be wrong. I’ve raised five children while reading about victims being stabbed, hung, bludgeoned, gassed, thrown off cliffs, burned, and generally disposed of in unpleasant ways. Mystery novels have kept me sane, I swear.

This summer, I have devoured so many amazing mystery novels that I started analyzing why this genre appeals to me so much. It isn’t just about loving books with plots that leave you with whiplash. No, I’m more inclined to love character-driven books. But the very best mystery novels give us those living, breathing, believable characters and haunting descriptions, too. They are also cultural mirrors of the best sort, revealing life’s truths in emotionally profound ways.

The book I was reading over breakfast this morning, for instance, was Broken Harbor. Written by the brilliant Irish novelist Tana French, Broken Harbor is told from the point of view of a detective who just might be losing his mind. The murders take place in one of those new, shoddily constructed developments on the sea, and the backdrop is today’s economic crisis and housing market woes. Along with trying to solve the murders, you’re led to understand the despair of those in the middle class who thought they had it all but were left with nothing during the recent recession.

Before that, I stayed up late for two nights straight to finish Gillian Flynn’s equally mesmerizing Gone Girl. This novel centers around a missing woman and the husband accused of having murdered her and gotten rid of the body in some amazingly clever way. Again, the backdrop is the economic crisis—both the husband and his wife have been badly impacted by the downturn. More importantly, the novel lays out the big questions about why so many loving relationships fail.

With Canadian writer Louise Penny’s sizzling series featuring the honorable, dignified Inspector Armand Gamache, I have learned all about the French-English tensions in Quebec, not to mention what it’s like to make a living as an artist married to another painter whose work is perhaps not quite as good as your own, leading to professional envy and marital tensions. And British writer Elly Griffiths writes lush, moody mystery novels featuring an archeologist who keeps being reminded—and reminding us—of how important it is to heed the lessons of the past.

Finally, one Indie series that had me riveted from the start is Toby Neal’s Lei Crime Series. (Full disclosure: although we’ve never met in person, Toby and I have become friends via social media, but I first contacted her because I loved her writing in Blood Orchids.) A practicing social worker in Hawaii, Toby writes fast-paced crime novels that will keep you turning the pages (or pressing buttons). As you read them, however, you can’t help but marvel at the way Neal lays out the economic, social, and cultural issues of Hawaii. You come away from these books with much, much more than just another murderer apprehended.

So I’ll keep devouring mysteries with my breakfasts, thank you, as I open window after window offering fresh perspectives on the world we live in.

5 Responses to Why We Love Mystery Novels: Murder, Mayhem, and Cultural Mirrors

  • Toby Neal says:

    Gillian Flynn. Does she ever write a likeable character? and yet, we can’t stop reading. Tana French. Too scary for me. The others will be delightful discoveries. .. and to see my books up there with that caliber of mystery is a profound compliment. You really got what I’m trying to do with the Lei books, which is educate about the complex issues of a multicultural society dependent on tourism, and often underestimated–while telling a good story that makes you hungry to know more.
    I think you really hit the nail on the head of why mysteries and thrillers are so satisfying. We like to be absorbed, titillated, thrilled and transported…and throw some romance on top and it’s irresistable.
    Write on, read on, I’ve got more in the chute for you!

  • Nancy L Gessner says:

    Wow. I caut my ‘mystery teeth’ on Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden too. The Bobwhite of the Glen! And yes I have taken a cruise where I curled up in a deck chair with a good mystery. As a matter of fact I don’t go anywhere without a book to read and it is usually a mystery!

  • Holly Robinson says:

    I’m glad to be in such good company, Toby & Nancy! Thanks for taking the time to comment! By the way, I forgot another writer I love: Susan Hill–another Brit. Fantastic series.

  • Love your site and especially your take on why we can’t seem to get enough of crime and mystery. I read and write a lot of Crime, both non-fiction and novels, and I recently blogged a 2-part post titled “Why Crime?” musing, as you have, about the appeal. If you’d like to have a look, it’s at:

    Now that I’ve found you, I’ll be coming back often.


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