I didn’t become a major mystery fan until near middle age—the time when such writers as Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Margaret Maron were breaking through the male-dominated genre with tough but relatable women detectives.
By the time I decided to switch from writing nonfiction to fiction, the field offered many great models of writers with both professional and amateur sleuths. I chose to join them. You don’t have to write about what you already know, but you better write about what you read.
As the books in my Show Me series have come out, some interviewers have danced around the question of why I write mysteries. The unasked question is why I don’t write literary novels instead. That ignores the fact that the art and craft of the best mystery writers equal that of any other writers.
But the question has forced me to consider why so many people read mysteries—many more than read literary novels—and why I write them. I came up with three reasons.
- Mysteries challenge readers’ intellect, calling on them to solve a puzzle, analyze information, detect deception. That challenge appeals to every age, every educational level, and both sexes.
As a reader and a writer, I enjoy weaving together apparently unrelated strands to develop a complete picture and come to a conclusion.
2. Mysteries reveal the human psyche—what drives someone to kill, how individuals react in a crisis, and even how good and evil battle within the individual and the society. That sounds pretty grim, but writers often use humor to lighten the situation. On the page and on the street, people really are funny.
The standard form for mysteries is the series. Readers follow these primarily because of the appeal of the ongoing characters. I like writing a series because it allows me to develop characters, to show how crises and relationships change them over time.
- Mysteries satisfy the desire for justice, which we often don’t get in life. One way or another, the baddies lose in a mystery.
Whatever I’m reading or writing, I want an entertaining story. Mysteries offer that and, quite often, incorporate insightful observations and thoughtful questions. Don’t tell anyone, but they can be downright literary.