Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why Is It Always Murder?

By Beth Terrell

I've been wracking my brain for a topic this week, so I asked Mary Beth, our Project Monitor at work, if there was a mystery-related topic she'd like to read about.

"Yes," she said. "Why does it always have to be about murder?"

"It's because human life is so high-stakes," I said, (or wish I'd said; I'm much more eloquent after the fact than I am in real life, which is probably why I'm a writer and not an orator). "It's easy to care about who killed Colonel Mustard and if our hero/heroine can stop them before they garrote poor Miss Scarlett. It's harder to be invested in who stole Grandma's china tea set."

There are no stakes higher than human life.

Still, because I am by no means an expert in these things, I went in search of a better, less simplistic answer. My quest began, as so many modern searches do, with a bit of creative Googling. After several false starts, I stumbled across Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction, Michael Cohen's treatise on why we enjoy mysteries. While the book is not exactly about why mysteries almost always involve murder, he does touch on the subject of why so many of us enjoy reading about murders (rather than about, say, tea sets).

Please note that these are my interpretations of one small part of Mr. Cohen's much more comprehensive work, which I'm sure he'd love you to explore in more detail by buying his book. Here are a few possibilities he offers for the pleasure we derive from reading about murder.

Premise #1: Reading about murder appeals to some lingering emotions passed down from our primitive ancestors. Cohen suggests that we all know how it feels to want to hurt someone, even if only for an instant, and that when we read mysteries, we not only identify with the protagonist, but also, on some uncomfortable level, with the villain . But we quickly distance ourselves from the villain, who is portrayed as being so bestial that the protagonist is justified in defeating (or even killing) him. Thus, we can indulge our primitive thirst for violence while feeling good about our identification with the hero. There may be something to this. How many of us derive a feeling of satisfaction from the mind-numbing violence of a Schwartenegger movie, once we've been convinced of the absolute badness of the bad guys, who are so bad they deserve whatever is coming to them?

Premise #2: We read murder mysteries for catharsis, to evoke and then banish our fear of death. Cohen says, "Such stories acknowledge that death exists by showing us a murder, but they also find its immediate cause in the murderer, and by eliminating that one deadly agent, they seem to eliminate the threat of death itself." Cohen goes on to suggest that the popularity of the modern mystery may reflect a need for a larger, cultural catharsis, where we fear not only for ourselves but for society as a whole. I wrote about this very thing a few weeks ago, and both of these ideas seem true to me--or at least for me. Reading mysteries banishes the bogey man, who always gets caught in the end.

Premise #3: We're all a bunch of sadomasochists who enjoy the suffering of others. On this point, I have to disagree. I've had the pleasure of meeting a lot of people who read and write mysteries, and by and large, they are the kind of people who scoop up spiders and gently put them outside, who will get out of a warm bed at 3:00 AM to pick up a friend whose car has stalled in thirty-degree weather, who not only do not take pleasure in the suffering others but are utterly horrified by it. In all fairness to Mr. Cohen, he didn't seem all that convinced by this idea either.

So why does it have to be murder? Maybe because nothing else evokes the depth of emotion of this one despicable act. Maybe because it is the one thing that threatens that which is most precious to us all: life itself.

3 comments:

Ben Small said...

Good question,Beth. Perhaps it's simple: We like to solve puzzles, but we like to solve interesting puzzles, not boring ones. Who would read a mystery about a stolen bug collection unless there was something high stakes about it? Or how about a mystery focused on who painted over the speed limit sign? Unless somebody gets killed as a result of it, or we are focusing on the journey to discovery of who painted over the sign -- yawn -- we don't much care. There's the thrill of the hunt, we're seeking. If there's no thrill, why aren't I playing Solitaire? :<)

Beth Terrell said...

I agree, Ben. I suppose it would be possible to write a riveting mystery about the stolen bug collection, but only if there is something exceptionally improtant about THAT bug collection. Maybe one of the bugs is a rare beetle that can be used to make a drug that will cure the mysterious illness plaguing our hero's mother.

Or maybe, if we were writing a literary piece, the owner of the bug collection had promised it to his estranged son, and he sees delivering the collection as his last chance to forge a relationship between them. But the driving question of THAT book would not be, "Who stole the bug collection?" but "Will the protagonist find a way to mend fences and reestablish a relationship with his son?"

Anonymous said...

When I was in grad school for my Psych masters, I had an argument with one of my professors who insisted that it was impossible to write from a POV other than one's own, thus labeling all mystery writers as violent individuals who would murder, maim or steal, etc., in real life. She evidently didn't get the concept of imagination or creativity. Sort of like theory #3 in the article.