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Back in July, Tirzah Price wrote an article for Book Riot that asks an important question: does solving the puzzle make a difference? Since then, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with mysteries, especially crime fiction, and what the answer is for me.
To be good, a mystery depends on several things, and the ability to hide crime stories isn’t always a sign that a mystery is actually good. Otherwise, books like The Secret History and television shows like Colombo would have their days counted from conception as they pretty much begin by introducing us to the killer. Many of the constituent parts of mysteries depend much more on the reader than on the book.
I first read Agatha Christie when I was in high school. The local library had a large Christie collection, and she quickly became one of my favorite writers. As I devoured her brilliantly crafted mysteries, I gradually realized that there was something missing in Miss Marple’s stories that I could always find in Poirot’s stories, which led me to prefer the latter. Miss Marple always seems to show her skills and relevance as a mystery solver at the end of the story by presenting clues and scenes that she experienced to explain how she came to her conclusions. Poirot, on the other hand, usually takes readers on a journey. We see what he sees and, in some ways, his stories always lead us to believe that we have all the tools that he does to solve the crime. Which, in fairness, doesn’t exactly mean that we’re more likely to unravel the mystery: Very often I’m just as lost in Poirot’s stories as I am in Miss Marples, but it’s being involved and knowing that I look pretty the same things, the Poirot sees that really make a difference. Even if I’m forever destined to be less smart than Poirot and always one step behind, at least I get a sense of fairness. Since I am shown the same things that Poirot witnessed, I have a good chance of finding out the whole thing. And I have. I am often very close to Poirot’s own unraveling, and it still counts.
As I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Bones of the Dead and got to the end, I flipped back to page 84, where I had left a note in the margin saying I knew who the killer was. I was right. In this particular book, I felt very smart because I realized the secret pretty early on (and absolutely loved it). But to be fair, there are plenty more books out there where I write a new suspect every ten pages or so, and it’s someone I barely considered.
Allowing the reader to reveal the mystery – and not being fooled, very often when you know who the killer is early on because the author chooses to give you that knowledge – is definitely not one of the variables that is make it up, or break it for me. I enjoy discovering the secret as much as I enjoy being fooled and tricked by the author, and I can’t possibly choose one or the other. It would be very cool if I was a little more like Sherlock Holmes, that’s for sure, but I also really like to let the author play me like a cheap pianola.
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Here are the twisted ones
In recent years, when I look back at what really moves me in a mystery book, I’ve realized how much I like twisted stories and characters.
Let’s look at Christie again. My all time favorite story of hers is The Crooked House. The main character Charles makes his first and last appearance as a detective’s assistant in this book, and much like Poirot, he takes us with him when he finds out for himself.
The plot is interesting enough, but it’s mostly the revelation of who killed the wealthy patriarch Aristide that makes it noteworthy. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read it: the killer is a very young child. She is Aristide’s own granddaughter, Josephine, who ends up committing more than one murder in the book.
Gone Girl isn’t just popular because it makes the reader trust the killer in the same way they cheat everyone in the book; It’s popular because it shows a side we don’t expect in a human. They show us the unimaginable, a fictional character who is smarter than any of us.
This, I think, is also the reason why Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca was so popular, and why We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Lottery are some of Shirley Jackson’s most compelling works.
Very often these stories take a character who for some reason appears fragile, perhaps even naive or flawless, and have them do the unthinkable. And while we may trust and want to believe in the best of humanity, it is the possibility of evil lurking in the most unexpected places that it so often does for us that so often intimidates us when we turn the last page.
If you enjoyed this piece and are a mystery fan yourself or curious about the genre, here are a few more places to explore:
26 of the best cozy mysteries
Mystery genre where marginalized voices are still left out
Mystery series that you can’t read in the correct order