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Mystery: the quality that keeps us reading

The Loft Literary Center

For the past 13 years, I’ve been teaching “An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery” through the Loft. Often, during the last class, I give my students a printout of a quote from B. F. Skinner, the renowned psychologist, author, inventor, social reformer, and poet: “To maintain the powers of the mind into old age, you must risk the contempt of your younger acquaintances and freely admit that you read detective novels.” Bravo to Dr. Skinner.

Mystery is the quality that keeps us reading any novel. Good stories pose questions: What does this mean? Where is this leading? What’s going to happen next? Because a sense of mystery is so central to storytelling, when you give it center stage, as you do in a crime novel, you get a step-up in grabbing a reader’s attention. That’s one of the reasons why mystery novels remain perennial bestsellers.

Humans are captivated by mystery. The whodunit, however, goes hand in hand today with another aspect of crime fiction: the whydunit. We are fascinated by what motivates us to do what we do, so much so that the focus of many modern crime stories is less on who the criminal is, although that’s still necessary, and more on why he did what he did, what led up to it, and what the ramifications are, not only for the victim, but also for the victim’s family and the victimizer. When sudden violence occurs, the investigation, the detection, is like a light shining down from above, one that begins to illuminate all the secret cracks and crevices in the lives of all the people connected to the crime. It also makes for a cracking good story.

Are there rules to writing a modern crime novel? Is there a universal template that publishers hand out to would-be authors? I once sat in on a meeting of writing teachers. A member of the group piped up and said exactly that. She was dismissive of genre fiction in general, and mystery fiction in specific. I, of course, tried, not terribly patiently, to point out that mystery fiction runs the gamut from light, pure entertainment to dark meditations on difficult moral issues. As with all genres, some books are better than others. But good fiction is never clustered solely in any genre of writing. We find good books where we find them—across the spectrum.

Read the rest of The Loft Literary Center’s article here.

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