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Our fascination with mystery-thrillers

Created date

August 10th, 2016
Detail from an engraving of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. From Arthur Conan Doyle's The Final Problem.

Detail from an engraving of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. From Arthur Conan Doyle's The Final Problem.

There is something pleasant about the idea of sitting down with a thrilling mystery novel. Whether it’s a hot summer’s day in air-conditioning or a cold winter’s night next to the wood stove, turning the pages of a good “whodunit” is just plain literary in every sense of the word, and with good reason.

After all, mystery thrillers have been flying off of American booksellers’ shelves since the mid-nineteenth century when Edgar Allan Poe wrote his chilling Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Originally published in Graham’s Magazine in April 1841, Poe’s short story is widely accepted as the first modern detective yarn, in which the protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, solves the mystery of two murders in Paris.

But exactly what is it about mystery-thrillers that enthralls readers so? The answer resides in the synergistic effects of reason and suspense. 

Reason and suspense

The fact remains that the world is not always a rational place in the way that we might hope it is, or, more to the point, in the way that it is for brilliant detective characters like Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. In these stories, we see someone using reason in a way that we don’t normally use it to solve one of life’s many puzzles.

For instance, when Holmes cracks a case thanks solely to a simple observation such as the dog that did not bark in the night, you think to yourself, “Now, why don’t I notice things like that?” Immediately following this question is the self-congratulatory realization that we can grasp every step that Holmes lays bare in his solution at the end of the story. 

“What a smart reader am I!” you exclaim.

It is a vicarious, voyeuristic experience—what historian Jacques Barzun once called the “romance of reason.” And this is part of what great literature is all about.

The other portion is a good thrill. In the case of a thrilling mystery, a small bit of psychology applies.

Much like with rollercoasters and haunted houses, people often use fiction in their pursuit of danger without the real expectation of it. This can be anything from Dupin’s hunt for a deadly orangutan to Holmes wrestling with Moriarty on the edge of a waterfall.

Whatever the scenario, the thrill of suspense and the intellectual rush of super-human reason make for a winning combination. 

The main character

Even with this winning pair, however, a writer has nothing without a great character. New York Times bestselling mystery writer Brad Meltzer probably knows this better than anyone.

The author of 11 bestselling books—most of them mystery-thrillers—Meltzer has created a series of great characters involved in solving mysterious conspiracies. These stories lead all the way to the White House and as far back in history as the American Revolution. 

“My books are fiction, but if you look around you, real life has its share of mysteries,” comments Meltzer. “Mystery is one of the most natural story elements a writer has.”

And his latest book, The House of Secrets (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), is proof. In it, Meltzer’s new protagonist Hazel Nash finds herself in a dual mystery. The daughter of a well-known conspiracy TV show host, Jack Nash, Hazel becomes tangled in the web of a bizarre government plot and the affairs of a 200-year-old traitor.

History typically plays a leading role in Meltzer’s books, which cover everything from nonfiction subjects like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to his bestselling novels that explore secret societies, age-old spy rings, and the American presidency.

But above all, his books utilize both suspense and mystery to tell an exciting story.

“If you think about it, history is full of unanswered questions,” he notes. “I think it’s the ‘not knowing’ that really draws us in as an audience.”

A quick look at some of the past’s big unsolved cases proves him right. 

Would Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa hold such fascination if we knew what happened to them? Would Jack the Ripper be who he is in the popular consciousness if we knew of his identity?

Indeed, as Meltzer points out, it is the not knowing that draws us into a good mystery, and it’s getting to the solution that thrills us.


Suggested mystery-thrillers

Silver Blaze, Arthur Conan Doyle

From Hell, Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell

Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, P.D. James

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

Cape Fear, John D. MacDonald, Dean Koontz

L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy