Many people have heard the phrase, “Everybody loves a mystery.” William G.Tapply, who wrote The Elements of Mystery Fiction, and is the author of the Brady Coyne mystery series of novels, stated in the March, 2007 edition of The Writer magazine the following:
What sets mystery novels apart from other types of fiction and makes them particularly appealing to fans are their whodunit puzzles. Mystery readers want to detect clues, to sniff out red herrings … to finger suspects. In other words, they want to play detective.
Mr. Tapply goes on to say how the readers like to match wits with the sleuth of the story, but they will be disappointed if they figure out the mystery before the main character does. That seems true. You may get self satisfaction from guessing some parts of the mystery correctly, but you get a charge out of a story that fools you, and then you look back and say, oh yeah, there were the clues, and that was clever how the author or filmmaker fooled me. I still can’t believe I didn’t guess the ending of The Sixth Sense.
But I think the appeal of the murder mystery goes even further. Patricia Cornwell said in the same edition of The Writer:
I cannot fully explain my fascination with violence, but I suspect it has to do with my fear of it … my writing is dark, filled with nightscapes and fear. Isolation and a sense of loss whisper throughout my prose like something perpetually stirring in the wind. It is not uncommon for people to meet me and find it incongruous that I write the sort of books I do.
I think what she says speaks to the old idea about why we want to look away from a car accident, but can’t. We are both drawn to and repelled by the horrible, wanting to understand it, fascinated by the killer who crosses the boundaries of society, but at the same time desiring safety from and ignorance of terrible acts.
Patricia Cornwell’s quote also addresses the concept of our double nature, how outwardly she may seem the last person to deal with violence, but inwardly she can explore the dark side of a character in her writing. This aspect brings up the theme of surface appearance versus inner reality. A big influence on me was Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. A brilliant psychiatrist, very sophisticated culturally, is in fact a murdering cannibal. This duality may also explain the current popularity of the serial killer character of Dexter in the books and TV show featuring him. He is a serial killer, who only kills killers. (I love that show).
OK, why did I write a murder mystery? Partly for the same reasons stated above. I became interested in mysteries through films. My dad took me to see Alfred Hitchcock movies. I especially liked Psycho, so you can see why I became interested in exploring the dark side of characters. I then started reading Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen novels. I love a complicated mystery because it is fun to try and solve the puzzle and be surprised by the twists in the plot. Two movies that influenced me in this way are The Last of Sheila (written by Anthony Perkins of Pyshco fame and Stephen Sondheim) and the original Sleuth, based on the Anthony Schaffer play. It’s also probably why I am addicted to the TV series Lost, and loved the 1960’s TV series The Prisoner, which may be the most enigmatic shows ever.
In my book, I explore that double concept of good and evil I mentioned above by telling an ironic tale of murder against the backdrop of a Quaker school, where pacifism is a religious tenet based on the respect for the divine in each individual.
But I think there is even more to the appeal of the mystery. My contention is that to classify the mystery as some type of 2nd rate genre is a disservice. The very act of wanting to find out the solution to mysteries is primal to humans: it takes place in science, mathematics, social sciences, psychology, in fact in just about every discipline. It happens in each person’s life every day: How is the best way to avoid traffic problems? How does one get the job done at work? What is the best way to fix a plumbing or electrical problem in the house? People vary on how much they thrive on answering questions and solving problems in their lives: some love it, doing crossword or picture puzzles, while others find questing after answers very taxing. But, we can’t escape it. Murder mystery stories at the very least provide an entertaining outlet for this primal drive; at the most, they help us to explore complex themes of what it is to be human.
In Chapter Two of my novel, the main character, Maxwell Hunter, an English teacher at Eastern Friends School, discusses the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats in one of his classes. I have included a number of literary references in my book, because this aspect is an important facet of my life. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in literature. I like playing the literary detective, looking for clues in a writer’s work to decipher his or her themes. So, I like works that have symbolism and allegory.
I saw the mystery as a way to explore some opposing human tendencies in my book. As I mentioned, the story deals with respect for the individual versus the negation of him or her through murder. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” led me to explore the social struggle between the well-to-do and the less economically fortunate. Yeats believed that history was a struggle between the desires for the spiritual and the material. He saw the birth of Jesus Christ as the most spiritual time and the approach of the 21st century as a time when the worship of a spiritual god would be replaced by the worship of a material deity. He saw the year 1000 AD as the ideal time because he felt that era had an equal mixing of the spiritual and the material. This theme fits in with another reason why I chose a Quaker school as the focus of the story. If there is that of God in each person, then all should be treated equally. But, a quality private school education is very expensive because there are no public funds on which to draw. So, the well-to-do often are the only ones who can afford such an education for their children. This of course, ironically, denies the Quaker concept of treating everyone according to their inherent worth.
So, I wrote A Lesson in Murder because in it I was able to indulge my love for a complicated puzzle plot and combine that with my passion for literature. To that mixture, I added an exploration of themes involving the rich and the poor and the material and the spiritual.