Mysteries are more popular today than ever, hogging bestseller lists year after year—taking up about half the spots unless you include pure thrillers (I don’t), in which case the percentage is higher. The variety of today’s mysteries is mind-boggling, ranging from the manor-house murder committed and solved over a weekend to the urban mystery in which the detective, amateur or professional, most solve a horrific crime or crimes and suffer horrific consequences in the process. A mystery—of any type—is easier to find a literary agent for, and agents I talk to tell me mystery/suspense is easier to place, particularly if it has “crossover potential.” Which translates to its being really, really good.
”These novels are always popular in ages of great anxiety,” says P.D. James, whose mysteries always hit the bestseller lists. ”It’s a very reassuring form. It affirms the hope that we live in a rational and beneficent universe. Real-life murder is arbitrary, sordid, pathetic, and ugly. Fictional murder is not. The mystery is a kind of modern morality play. But it is a fantasy.”
This isn’t to say that mysteries don’t serve up characters who break your heart and gritty details that mirror real life. The good ones, including James’s, do exactly that. After all, good mysteries are good novels—they’re just good novels in which at least one murder takes place and somebody sets about, usually successfully, to solve the crime. But mysteries are morality plays, good vs. evil, and good nearly always wins and evil bites the dust. The bad guy gets caught or killed or kills him/herself. The crime is solved. Justice is served. Most of the time anyway…
That hasn’t changed, although mysteries have become more sophisticated and allow more ambiguities. In a world where bad guys often seem to make the most noise while they’re getting by with murder, literally and figuratively, it’s not surprising that readers all over the world find a good mystery so soul-satisfying.
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