The Mystery of Mystery

The daughter, well-known star of the XUP Film Series, loves American Idol, so between my evening chores last night I was suddenly riveted to the TV by that black-haired kid singing Mad World. It was quite something. Haunting.

But this post isn’t about American Idol.

It’s about the madness of the world.

There is a lot of crazy, evil stuff going on out there; stuff our fellow humans are doing to each other and we are riveted by it. Aren’t we? Why?

The more grisly and/or insane the news headline is, the more chat it will generate online, in the office, in the pub. The most popular shows on TV, the most popular movies at the cinema are of the detective/mystery/psycho killer genres.

The most popular fiction for almost two centuries[1] has been mystery fiction. And it’s not just a North American or British phenomena – this fascination with evil is popular in many countries and as far back as those crazy Greeks and their tragic gods. 

And evil is almost always more attractive than good. We love the bad boys.

Why are we so fascinated?

Maybe because evil, in real life and in fiction looks so normal – so like us, but is so thrillingly outside of our realm of experience. Except for in the cheesiest of stories, they psychotic killer isn’t a slavering monster; he’s the handsome Ted Bundy, working at the desk next to yours, or the cute, quiet neighbour who keeps to himself but always says a friendly hello when you’re out cutting the lawn.  Evil can also be the attractive yuppie couple you’ve passed the time of day with occasionally at your local bar.

It makes you shudder. It gives you chills. It taxes your mind. This sort of thing is incomprehensible in reality. On TV, in books, at the movies we are able to make sense of it. Things are explained enough to satisfy us; the bad guy is punished.[2]

Detective fiction – and its echo in our obsession with real-life murder – reflects the best and the worst in us. At best, a belief that science and reason will triumph, and that inside each of us is a Philip Marlowe, untainted by corruption: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Reason, science, intelligence triumphs over baser, perverted instinct.  Order triumphs over anarchy. And the people who lead this battle are not gods, but humans just like us. They might be a bit cleverer or have resources we don’t have, but our detectives always have to have a flaw.

Our faith in human ingenuity is equal only to our distrust of fellow humans. And our consumption of mystery fiction in all formats is escalating every year.

And I’m one of the biggest consumers of mystery novels.  I prefer the UK style psychological mystery over the American detective-gets-beat-to-a-pulp-in-every-chapter style, but I can get into either depending on my mood.  I plow through two or three novels a week and still, week after week I manage to find some I haven’t read.

Where you do get your vicarious, evil thrills?


[1] Edgar Allen Poe is thought to be the father of the mystery novel with his 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue

[2] Unless the bad guy also happens to be the good guy like Dexter, which Jeff Lindsay pulled off really well in his novels, but which just doesn’t work for me on TV. He’s just creepy on TV.

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24 responses to “The Mystery of Mystery

  1. It’s the Gary Jules version of Mad World. (I hate when Idol singers appropriate things like that.)

    Dexter (the show) never did it for me, I guess my anti-heroes need to be at least slightly sympathetic. Or it might be the actors.

    But yeah, I love mystery novels.

  2. Reading, too. But not mystery novels. I’m on a depraved characters novel kick. I’m about ready for some wholesomeness…..

  3. I’m a fan of crime fiction (I love me a good Henning Mankell novel).

    And horror (à la Stephen King and Peter Straub) with things to nasty to contemplate.

    I think we find evil so fascinating because I truly believe we all have it in us, buried deep down but lurking just the same. We all have a dark side, most of us just keep it under wraps.

  4. Total mystery fan here.

    My most favourite favourites are British: Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books, Ian Rankin’s Rebus series and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh mysteries.

    I like series better than one-offs and also read James Lee Burke (Dave Robicheaux), Steve Hamilton (Alex McKnight), Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache), Debra Crombie (Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James), Elizabeth George (I want more Barbara Havers), Peter Robinson (Tony Banks), Ruth Rendell (Inspector Wexford), Caroline Graham (Midsomer murders series), Dana Stabenow (Kate Shugak), Val McDermid (Tony Hill and what’s her name, Carol something), Minette Walters, Linda Fairstein (Alex Cooper), Laura Lippman (Tess Monaghan), Jeffrey Deaver (Lincoln Rhyme), and well pretty well any mystery that isn’t too cozy or written from the point of view of a cat.

  5. i can’t really get into that stuff. it creeps me out to think someone is twisted enough to come up with these ideas, and then scared that someone out there will be twisted enough to try and copy those ideas. does that make sense? i lived in fear after accidentaly watching silence of the lambs. so scared someone was going to make something with my skin. *shiver*. and, well, reading the stuff makes it a kajillion times worse because it allows my imagination to run rampant.

    exception: dexter. really like it.

  6. My vicarious evil thrills are many and include-Horror fiction and films, watching paranormal stories and crime shows on the television and visiting scary theme parks. I agree with Jazz, that all of us have a dark side, but the ones that are truely evil are often victims of a poor childhood and/or suffer from a physical abnormality in the brain. Its sad that there are psychos out there, but yes, in a way, they are fascinating.

  7. Dorothy Sayers addresses this concept – I think in both ‘Gaudy Night’ and ‘A Busman’s Honeymoon.’
    You are going to have me thinking about this for days; love it.

  8. Jazz is correct in noting that we all have it in us and simply keep up under wraps – well, most of us do so.
    For my vicarious dose, I too like King. But Clive Barker comes close.
    But who needs fiction? Read the paper or watch the news and you’ll get a dose big enough to turn a cuddly kitten into a drooling, red-eyed bringer of death!
    Oh – and I don’t watch stuff like Idol, but I clicked on the link and man, that kid does a real good version of Mad World! Haunting!
    Quick – who did the original? No Googling!

  9. Nat – Well they only have a week. It’s can’t be too easy to come up with the right song, make it totally original and rehearse it to perfection. I find Idol pretty boring most of the time and am only exposed to it by default, but I thought that was pretty good yesterday. The Dexter of the novels is sympathetic in an uncomfortable way – like, you’re rooting for him, but you’re not happy about it. I found the same thing with Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series. The best thing ever, which they totally messed up in the movie. Ripley in the book is a terrible, immoral, psychopath killer/swindler/etc. but you can’t help but root for him. And it makes you feel very strange.

    Ellie – Depraved how? Like the bad guys they have on Criminal Minds?

    Jazz – Gee, I hope we don’t all have real evil in us. I think we may all have the potential to do something nasty – but not evil..serial killer evil?? I had to stop reading the King and Straub stuff years ago. I absolutely can’t handle the supernatural horror stuff; neither in movies or in novels. It makes me feel physically ill. And yet I was a big fan until about my mid-20s. Spoooooky

    Alison – Love Rankin, Crombie, George, Robinson (it’s Alan Banks – I’m just reading the latest one now — VERY disappointing), love, love Rendell, Walters and I adore Louise Penney. I want to move to that village – too bad the series is so short. If you haven’t read Patricia Highsmith, I recommend her most highly and I’m sure you’ll love her if you love all these. We should swap lists some time and see if there’s anyone we haven’t discovered yet!

    Meanie – that’s kind of how I feel about supernatural horror stuff. It’s too bad though because there’s lots of good mystery fiction out there that doesn’t involve really twisted stuff.

    Julia – See my comment to Jazz. I quit after The Shining. That scared me so much I had to get the book out of my house or I would never have had another moment’s peace. The movie was totally ridiculous by comparison.

    Hannah – Don’t be feeling sorry for the psychos. And they’re only fascinating from afar. Scary theme parks, eh? Like where they have actual people hiding in corners grabbing you and jumping out at you and stuff? No thanks.

    Mary G – Ah yes, Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter Whimsey. How genteel compared to the more recent oeuvre of the genre (how do you like my hoity toity literary talk, eh?)

    Trashee – “Jazz is correct in noting that we all have it in us and simply keep up under wraps – well, most of us do so.”….Um..should I be thinking of moving out of the neighbourhood? I don’t know the answer to your Idol question – was it that Gary guy Nat mentions in her comment? And ya, the scary stuff in the newspapers is too real and we never get to solve the mystery and see anyone getting their comeuppance or plunging to their deaths or anything.

  10. XUP-I don’t feel sorry for them, I was just explaining a couple possible explanations for their depravity. I studied psychology in school and personality disorders were covered. It is interesting, but yeah, I agree, more from afar.

  11. I used to love, love, love horror films and mystery fiction, but more of the “classic” stuff—Stephen King, movies made from his books, and old-school flicks like “Halloween.” But now I can’t watch any of that. Not the new stuff. It’s all too gratuitous for me. Too violent for the sake of violence. There’s enough bad stuff on the news and I don’t need to pay to watch it in a theater. Maybe that makes me sound soft of naive, but I’d just rather not go there anymore.

    (Although if “Misery” comes on cable, I’m in!)

  12. I’ve been through the Stephen King phase. “Misery” and “The Green Mile” are near the top of my lists of all-time best movies and best books.

    My current favourite author is Jonathan Kellerman, especially his Alex Delaware novels. Delaware is a psychiatrist who works as a consultant for LAPD. In fact, I just bought one yesterday, to read on the beach/beside the pool in Jamaica next week.

  13. Just a warning to NB. Reading by the beach/pool down south can give you a terrible headache from the bright bright sun. Nice cool rum drinks are the only known preventive medicine so be sure to take some for safety sake.

  14. Trashee- Ya, I looked that up. Was that an actual group or just a fundraiser?

    Hannah – I was once trapped in a car with a psychopath who for years had seemed like a perfectly normal person. He didn’t kill me, but threatened to. It was a very scary.

    Mo – I stopped being able to deal with this stuff after my father died. I had horrifying nightmares for years of him crawling out of his grave and stuff, so the supernatural fiction just wasn’t much fun any more.

    Bob – I’ve read Jonathan Kellerman – he writes with his wife, doesn’t he? Enjoy the beach, Bob. Stay way from the ganja.

    Bandobras – You and Bob really have to meet. I think you’d get along.

  15. Many of those already mentioned are my favourites – am also totally into British mysteries.

    It is Dick Francis that confounds me – love his books, yet am so not into horses or gambling or racing. (He writes with his wife, Mary, or did before she died)

  16. Jonathan Kellerman sometimes writes with his wife, Faye, who also writes independently of him. I’ve tried reading her, but don’t get hooked as easily as I do by her hubby’s writing.

    Rum wards off headaches from bright sun. Got it. Thanks, bandobras.

  17. @XUP

    Not related to this post. But you should see what Eyeteaguy is saying on my blog.

    He’s claiming that you and me are the same person!

    You oughta go set him straight! 😉

  18. Violetsky – I used to read Dick Francis, but it became too much of a formula after a while – you could tell exactly who the bad guy was going to be from chapter one; how it was all going to unfold; when someone was going to get injured/killed. I find a lot of times with these series writers, after a while they get bored and seem to just be going through the motions. As I mentioned earlier, I’m reading the latest Peter Robinson and it has absolutely no life. It’s like he just cut and pasted bits from previous novels with no real story, no character development, nothing. Big yawn

    Bob – Enjoy your vacation, Bob. You’re going to need to rest up so that you can kick the career development into high gear when you get back.

    Friar – Ha ha. That Eyeteaguy is just too clever to live, isn’t he?

  19. I started when I read everything Agatha Christie ever wrote when I was about 12 and I have been a mystery junkie ever since.

  20. I like movies of all kinds, but especially thrillers, that edge of your seat, don’t know what’s gonna happen til the end kind of movies. From any genre.

  21. I love a good mystery novel! But I am partial to stories with underlying story lines which include humor or very complex theories which I have to then go look up online. The ones with humor are good entertainment, the ones with complex theories make me think and research and come to a conclusion or decision. Depends on my mood, but most of what I read is mystery.

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