Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Morality of Mysteries

I have a theory about the popularity of mysteries. I think people read them – particularly the traditional or “cozy” variety – because they’re about the war between good and evil; and in them good wins and evil is defeated. Every. Single. Time.

This is comforting to read, especially in a world that seems to take this war very lightly. Yes, it’s about murder, but the reader knows the culprit will be, at the end, marched away between two cops who are muttering in his ears, “You have a right to remain silent . . .”

In fact, these books are not about the nasty details of murder or some other crime. In most of these books, the murder takes place “off stage.” The story often begins with someone walking in on a body, or, if the murder takes place during the book, it is rarely described while occurring. If you want nasty details, go to Silence of the Lambs, a book I most sincerely do not recommend.

I wonder if this is why traditional-mystery authors so often come to use exotic or unusual methods of murder. The thrill lies not in the gory details but the strange ones. One of my most unusual murder weapons was a sweater knit party of cat fur, given to an elderly rich man with a weak heart and a lot of allergies. Another was a very thin steel knitting needle. I am going to use a very prosaic item as a deadly weapon in the book I will soon embark upon. We don’t like to smear the pages with gore, we’ll intrigue with weird instead. Possibly this is to move the death into the realm of fantasy (though the methods are real enough; most of us have contacts with medical examiners, forensic investigators and emergency room personnel), since the books are not really about clever ways to die, but clever ways to catch a murderer.

There’s an interesting discussion of morality in three works of literature over at The Claremont Institute which includes one of my favorites, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Go to:

I invite you yet again to visit my web site,, as I have just gotten a picture of the model for the pattern that will appear in the back of Thai Die. It is very beautiful, and strongly evokes the style and shape of the Phoenix that ornaments a piece of extremely old Chinese silk embroidery.


Camille Minichino said...

You've provided my airplane reading as I'm off to NY this morning, Monica. I've printed out the ref. Thanks.

Another thing that makes "cozies" chilling without the graphics: Settings are typically not the mean streets where you expect violence, but just down the lane where we're all sleeping peacefully.

Annette said...

You hit the nail on the head Monica. I don't want to read the actual murder scene. We have enough blood and gore on the nightly news. I want to read about the clues to solve the murder, appealing characters who solve the murder and places or communities where everyone know one another and in some cases all pitch in to catch the bad guys.

Monica Ferris said...

Camille, Annette, you both make the same brilliant point: the settings of these books. Putting a crime in the midst of some ordinary place (school, cruise ship, seemingly-safe suburb, small town) is more scary than on some mean street, where crime is served up daily.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I also think that our characters are so much more realistic than in many of the hard-boiled books that our readers can relate. We all know how tenuous life is...and how at any time we could be victims of violence.

And I think we all pray that we'll be strong and courageous enough to handle what comes our way.

As I write, I think of all the scrapbookers I've met and how under the joy they commit to their pages there are often stories that would tear your heart out. Yet...these women keep on believing that life is essentially fair and good.

Kathryn Lilley said...

I think you're right about cozies, Monica. But as a writer, I keep being drawn to the flame of more explicit violence and sex. I must have been born with more than a few uncozy bones!

Linda O. Johnston said...

As a writer of romances, including paranormal romances, as well as mysteries, I enjoy following readers' expectations in a variety of genres. In all of them, though, what makes the stories unique, and keeps readers reading, is characterization as well as plot. I agree that cozies are fun for the way they show how the bad guys can't get away with their nasty stuff, since our protagonists must figure out whodunit before the story ends--with the help of their pets in my stories! It may not be real life, but it sure makes for an enjoyable read!

Nicole P said...

This is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading within the mystery genre. I like the intrigue and the suspence, but cannot stand to be scared out of my pants or grossed out!!