Off the Pulpit

Why I Love Mystery Novels

From the moment I read my first Agatha Christie and my mother gave me a John MacDonald, I’ve been hooked on mysteries. From Holmes to Bosch, I read classic, golden age mysteries, international mysteries, noir, psychological puzzles, police procedurals, spy novels. I’ve even contributed an essay or two to compendiums about mystery literature. There are established reasons of course: such books have a clear plot and strongly defined characters; they suggest there are solutions in the world and there is ultimate justice (at least, most of them do.) But lately I’ve come to believe there is another reason why I, and so many others, love mystery novels.

The best mysteries emphasize the essential unpredictability of life. No one expects the murder(s), even if the detective makes some dark remark about foreboding. And the solution is inevitably surprising, or the mystery is not a success. It is a literature of contingency; of possibility; of dark and light in unlikely and unpredictable combinations. It is a literature of life.

A mystery is a promise of improbable occurrences: in a remote town called Ur, a man named Abraham hears a voice. You’ll never guess what happens next.