Why Are Mystery Novels Fun To Read?
By Ron Benrey
Oddly, many of the mystery lovers I know have difficulty answering this simple question. I suspect that’s because most of us don’t waste much effort pondering philosophical conundrums, when we could make better use of our time reading (and writing) mystery stories.
On the other hand, the related question––Why are readers entertained by mystery fiction?––his been around for a long time, because it does seems strange that perfectly normal (probably smarter than average) people would find enjoyment in reading about murder, death, and assorted kinds of unpleasant criminality.
I believe the simplest explanation is that mystery novels entertain without being challenging. They are “mind relaxing” reads that follow well-known genre conventions and, unlike so-called “literary novels,” don’t require much mental concentration to enjoy.
Good mystery fiction takes a reader on an “out-of-body” journey that, for a few hours, drives everyday worries out of his or her mind. The reader is transported to interesting places s/he is unlikely to actually visit, and introduced to fascinating people s/he will never meet in daily life. A well-written mystery novel will amplify this chief source of enjoyment with clever dialog, interesting settings, exotic locales, eccentric characters, and often painless opportunities to learn interesting things—about topics ranging from food, to bell ringing, from sailing to monasteries, from golf tees to high tea.
If these details are presented without too much clutter, the reader vicariously enjoys a ride on the Orient Express… lunch in a Greek taverna … family members far worse than his or her own… opportunities to work in unusual occupations… chances to have a Walter Mitty moments pursuing unusual crafts… the list goes on and on. And, of course, some mystery novels are laugh-out-loud funny.
Mystery novels also offer puzzles that are fun to contemplate, even if readers don’t actually solve them (I’m perfectly happy to read a mystery cover-to-cover without trying to figure out who-dun-it).
The most erudite reason I’ve come across for why people enjoy mystery novels is the most speculative: When the times are especially grim (filled with war, economic upheavals, social unrest, and natural disasters), readers find solace in entertaining novels that show good triumphing over evil, showcase traditional right/wrong values, and have tidy endings in which the world is put right again.
The storylines of most good mysteries put interesting people into difficult circumstances—and we get to watch them react. The protagonist’s world goes out of kilter and s/he spends the rest of the story restoring the order of his/her world. Given the tumult and uncertainty of our real lives, it’s satisfying (fun!) to harmony replace chaos and calm replace fear as the story progresses.
If all of this is true, this decade will be a boom time for mystery novels.
My wife, Janet, and I write cozy mysteries that strive to be entertaining. Cozies minimize in-your-face violence and maximize the other fun aspects of mystery fiction: particularly the clever puzzle, an interesting setting, unusual characters, and the clear triumph of good at the end.
One of our favorite “children” is “Dead as a Scone,” the first novel in our “Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries” series:
Murder is afoot is the sedate English town of Royal Tunbridge Wells—and the crime may be brewing in a tea pot!
Nigel Owen is having a rotten year. Downsized from a cushy management job at an insurance company in London, he is forced to accept a temporary post as managing director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. Alas, he regrets living in a small town in Kent, he prefers drinking coffee (with a vengeance), and he roundly dislikes Flick Adams, PhD, an American scientist recently named the museum’s curator.
But then, the wildly unexpected happens. Dame Elspeth Hawker, the museum’s chief benefactor, keels over a board meeting—the apparent victim of a fatal heart attack. With the Dame’s demise, the museum’s world-famous collection is up for grabs, her cats, dog, and parrot are living at with Flick and Nigel—and the two prima donnas find themselves facing professional ruin.
But Flick—who knows a thing or two about forensic science—is convinced that Dame Elspeth did not die a natural death. As Flick and Nigel follow the clues—including a cryptic Biblical citation—they discover that a crime perpetrated more than a century ago sowed the seeds for a contemporary murder.
Ron Benrey writes cozy mysteries with his wife Janet. Together, they have written nine novels in three series: “The Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries,” “The Pippa Hunnechurch Mysteries,” and “The Glory North Carolina Mysteries.”
Ron has been a writer forever—initially on magazines (his first real job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Magazine), then in corporations (he wrote speeches for senior executives), and then as a novelist. Over the years, Ron has also authored ten non-fiction books, including the recently published “Know Your Rights — a Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” (published by Sterling). Ron holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a juris doctor from the Duquesne University School of Law. He is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.