True confessions: I'm an addict. Only my obsession doesn't run to Godiva truffles, prescription pain medication or maxing out the credit card on E-bay. I'm addicted to mystery novels. When they start a 12-step program, I'll be forced to confess, "I am powerless over Ruth Rendell, and my life has become unmanageable."
This week I'm heading off to Bloody Words in Ottawa. This is Canada's premier mystery/crime/thriller conference for writers, readers and book sellers. Being on the author panel "What is it with crime anyway?" has me pondering why I must dash to the library every few days to replenish my stash of suspense novels come heck or high water.
First, there's the challenge of solving the puzzle that has me hooked. There's a stack of mystery novels by my bed because they contain stimulating intellectual conundrums: Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent and Nicci French's Secret Smile. As a reader, nothing beats this for escapism. Unpaid bills, rejected manuscripts, a spat with a friend all flies out the window when I get caught up trying to figure out who-dun-it and vicariously outwit the villain.
My favourite attention grabbers are the ones with two endings as often unfolds in Harlen Coban's narratives. Everything wraps up neatly in the first ending with villain A finally cornered, then suddenly I realize I've been duped. Villain B, someone seemingly innocuous and charming (the protagonist's best friend for example) is really the dark hand twisting the strings behind the scenes. As a writer, I crave the unexpected to make me stretch, entertain all the possibilities of who the antagonist could be, and slip every character into the rubic cube plot of possibilities spinning within my imagination.
Secondly, mystery novels offer hope in an insane world. As Hollie Ephron points out in "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel," crime novels deal with serious social issues like truth, culpability, love, racism, power and redemption." It's empowering to tackle these issues, albeit vicariously, and try them on for size. Positive themes are reassuring: power corrupts or honesty pays. As a writer, for a brief moment, I have control over a precarious world. Contrary to how it appears on the surface, crime novels aren't about murder, they affirm hope.
Thirdly, mystery novels are simply fun. Think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Who hasn't laughed out loud at Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, the former lingerie buyer turned bond bailsman. Or Linwood Barclay's Zack Walker trying to rescue his neighbour, Trixie Snelling, the dominatrix.
Finally, I can' t stop reading mystery novels because the good guy wins. We all know that doesn't happen in real life (though it probably depends on what your personal definition of 'winning' is). However, in crime novels good does conquer evil. As a reader, I love drifting off the sleep with that warm fuzzy. As a writer, it allows me to identify with the amazing perseverance of the real life heroes in law enforcement: There's no hiding from the truth. Sooner or later, it will catch up with you.
As will addictions, I'm told. Hopefully, when I hit bottom, I'll be buried beneath a towering pile of Barbara Vine, Elizabeth George and Ian Rankin.
Author of LET THE SHADOWS FALL BEHIND YOU (Kunati Books)
"A murder, a past still preying upon the souls of those involved, is always an intrusive guest. Let the Shadows Fall Behind You tells that chronicle with poignancy, wistful descriptions of small town life and punchy characterizations that expose hard truths. Sadly rich and beautiful writing."
-Don Graves CANADIAN MYSTERIES The Hamilton Spectator.