November 2002

Melinda Hill

mystery strumpet

An Introduction

Many bad habits develop in childhood. Mine was a love of mysteries. It began when I was a chubby little thing looking for something to read. I stumbled on Nancy Drew and read them in stacks. I loved her smarts, sophistication, her "titian" hair (what color is titian, anyway?). I loved trying to solve the mystery before she did, and, let's face it, it wasn't that hard to do. At some point, I realized I was getting a bit too old for Nancy, so I moved on to Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie, Carolyn Hart, and the like.

Once I got to college and started working on my English degree, I realized that I didn't have time to read for fun, and even if I did, "literary" people don't read mysteries. They read Salman Rushdie or Philip Roth. So I got to be a bit too good for mysteries. It wasn't that there was any open hostility to mysteries; it was more that they didn't even exist in the literary world I was trying to inhabit. We strove to read clever and post-modern stuff; we wanted to be little David Foster Wallaces and Lorrie Moores. Genres were something the unwashed masses read, not us.

I sustained that frame of mind through the first couple of years post-college, until I formed a book group at the library where I work. I wanted people to show up, of course, so I wanted something to appeal to those aforementioned "unwashed masses." Of course, now I knew better; I knew that those unwashed masses were people with busy lives who needed a good story, and I wanted to hear those stories. So I started a mystery book club, and turned back to the genre I once loved, but this time with a more critical eye. To my surprise, I've found many redeeming qualities in the genre. They might not have complicated, multi-layered plots, but the stories are clean and compelling. They might not always have the most complicated characters, but they certainly aren't afraid to look at the darker side of human nature. They probably won't change your life, but they'll certainly help you get through it.

Mysteries are, simply, good stories. They have to be. Other genres can get by with a focus on character development rather than plot, but a mystery can't do that. It's about putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Sometimes it's a whodunit; sometimes you already know who did it, and the story focuses on the protagonist's journey to knowing what you know: who did it and why.

Both types of mysteries spend time exploring the guilty party's motivation, which brings me to another, more emotional reason for reading mysteries: they don't shy away from the dark side of human nature. Some handle it with kid gloves, ala Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, some get a bit grittier, ala Dashiell Hammett, but all at least touch on fear, anger, jealousy or other baser emotions that we don't like to acknowledge. Something in us needs to see these emotions out there in the world, and see them dealt with, sometimes justly, sometimes not. We're fascinated with what brings another person to the point of violence. We're fascinated that it comes from unexpected places; from people who seem respectable, privileged, the pillars of society. It's both comforting and disconcerting to see the impulses we feel brought to light and dealt with, usually justly, which leads to another reason for dabbling in mysteries: their relative neatness. Loose ends are generally tied up and justice is served. There are good guys and bad guys, although in a good mystery, they're both a bit shaded with gray. In the midst of the day-to-day ambiguity that we all live with, it's comforting to visit a world where things fall together in a way that makes sense. Some might say that makes mysteries simplistic, and perhaps it does. I say it makes them an escape in the best possible sense of the world, and that's something everyone needs at times. Is it unrealistic? Maybe, but good mystery writers make it feel like it could happen. Like in some small way these people have taken control, seen the clues, and followed them to their natural conclusion. People in mysteries get what they deserve most of the time, which is far more often than in real life.

A lot of mysteries are trite and fluffy, but some are thoroughly researched and drenched in detail, be it forensic or historic. Some only service the plot, others have strong, compelling, well-developed characters. There are others that are so entrenched in our popular culture that it would be silly to ignore them. These are some of the mysteries I'll be exploring and critiquing as your Mystery Strumpet. Over the course of the next several months, I'd like to introduce you to some mysteries you can read in good conscience. They'll entertain for certain, challenge you a bit, and maybe even educate you, just a little. They're books you can read without feeling like you've just sold your soul to Danielle Steele. They're the best of the genre, and deserve a place on your bookshelf, or at least, under your bed where your friends won't see them. Don't worry, I won't take it personally.