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Why we read mysteries

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January 23rd, 2014
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on the train
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There’s something about mysteries that we all love. Maybe it’s the allure of the unknown, the thrill of the chase, the rush that comes with solving a case. 

Regardless of readers’ reasons for loving them, mystery stories have dominated the literary market for well over a century and they continue to do so today. Recently, the Tribune spoke with rare books dealer Kevin Johnson, of Royal Books in Baltimore, Md., about the genre’s popularity and its evolution.

Tribune: The mystery genre has been around for a long time. Why has it always been so popular?

Johnson: The mystery genre has endured for a few reasons. Mainly, it has to do with the idea of a series character, which I think authors like Arthur Conan Doyle helped pioneer. He was one of the first to develop this sort of character on such a hugely popular level. 

Through Sherlock Holmes, people got to live a second life when they read his stories. Doyle gave Holmes a personality, personality problems, and vices. He wasn’t just a guy solving mysteries. There was more to him. It was a vicarious experience for the readers and one that continued as long as Doyle was writing.

Tribune: How about authors like Rex Stout and Agatha Christie? Where do they fit into the evolution of the mystery genre?

Johnson: Well, I think that Agatha Christie and Rex Stout are two really good examples of very successful mystery writers. One of the reasons they were so successful was that they borrowed from Doyle’s formula. They came up with their own running characters that had personal and professional quirks. 

With Agatha Christie you had Miss Marple. And, of course, Rex Stout gave us Nero Wolfe.

But again, these characters came to life on the page. Their lives existed in parallel with the readers’ lives. So with each new story, readers could check in and see what these beloved protagonists had been up to.

Nero Wolfe, for instance, was a really odd character that people loved—this fat man who was incredibly brilliant when it came to solving mysteries, but he refused to leave his house. He would stay in and tend to his orchids while his assistant Archie Goodwin did all the running. Then Wolfe solved the mystery based on Archie’s legwork.

Most of us don’t like dealing with strange people in real life because they’re tedious and stressful, but we love to read about them, especially when they have this great talent for solving mysteries. 

Tribune: You mentioned Wolfe’s brilliance at solving mysteries. Do you think readers enjoyed being in the shoes of a brilliant character—that is, do you think they enjoyed solving the mysteries along with Holmes and Wolfe?

Johnson: Absolutely. Characters like Holmes had this super-human ability to solve mysteries. And though sometimes it was absurd, readers loved it. They found it exciting and entertaining.

Tribune: How about the genesis of the genre with writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins?

Johnson: With writers like Poe, it was more of a horror story with a twist of mystery. He didn’t have series characters. His were detective stories but in a very loose sense.

Perhaps most notable about early mysteries was that they were a little more passive or subtle in the way that they played out. Characters like Holmes and Wolfe actively sought mysteries. People hired them to solve cases.

On the other hand, in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and The Moonstone, the characters stumbled into mysteries and solved them rather unexpectedly. You’re not dealing with a magnifying glass-wielding detective in these stories. 

But these books were still wildly popular. They combined the Victorian Gothic story with a new sense of mystery.

Tribune: Does anyone know what the first real mystery book was?

Johnson: Generally, collectors and scholars tend to cite Collins’s The Woman in White (1859) as one of the earliest mystery novels. The Moonstone (1868) is another one. Collins is certainly considered one of the early pioneers.

Tribune: You’re a rare books dealer. How prominent are mystery books among collectors?

Johnson: They are very big with collectors. There are a lot of mystery fans out there who have collections entirely based on the genre, some collections, in fact, that take up whole rooms. And there are dealers who sell nothing but mysteries. There’s a huge collectors market for this genre.

Many items are quite rare. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, often appeared in pulp magazines and other periodicals like The Strand. Original copies of those publications are extremely valuable. Some of them practically fell apart in your hands when you read them, so they’re hard to find today. When you do find them, they’re expensive.

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