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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