In the story entitled “The Final Problem,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to put an end to his most famous fictional creation by having Sherlock Holmes plunge to his death from the top of the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a deadly embrace with his nemesis, the evil Professor Moriarty. The massive public outcry that followed this storyline was enough though to cause Conan Doyle to reconsider this end. He chose to bring Holmes back soon afterwards in the story entitled “The Adventure of the Empty House.” To this day, the image of Holmes with his pipe, his eccentricities, and his deer-stalker hat, remain iconical pop culture images. And, as most everybody knows, Agatha Christie’s delightful murder mystery play The Mousetrap holds the record for the longest unbroken run of any theatrical show. What these clues point to, my dear Watson, is the undeniable popularity of the mystery genre.
Over the course of the past fifteen years or so, there have been plenty of signs pointing to the onset of the aging process, including a trend towards ever-increasing dress sizes and a growing taste for easy-listening music. Don’t get me wrong; I can still cut loose on the dance floor if there is some good funk or blues playing. One of the most enjoyable aspects of aging though has been my steadily growing appreciation for the quieter joys of a well-written mystery novel. There is just something so comfortably middle-aged about settling in for the night (or morning, or afternoon) with a box of chocolates and a good mystery novel. The other day, for instance, my daughter and I were seated side-by-side on the couch, with a blanket draped across us. I was reading P.D. James’ Devices and Desires (2004) for the third or fourth time, while my daughter was reading the latest Lemony Snicket. It was pure bliss.
Although I had read the odd Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers book growing up, my love of mysteries hadn’t really begun to develop until I was in my mid-thirties. I was on a road trip with my husband through the American southwest, when the tape player in our Subaru began eating all of our music tapes. We stopped at a used bookstore in Albuquerque to pick up some material to pass the time during the long hours of driving. The owner of the store recommended a book called The Jim Chee Mysteries (1990), written by Tony Hillerman, a more-or-less local writer. The mysteries are set on and around the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. The stories are filled with fascinating insights into Navajo spiritual practices, art, social etiquette, and culture. I was instantly hooked and have since borrowed from the library every one of Mr. Hillerman’s books.
Part of my enjoyment derived from reading mystery novels lies in the details and atmosphere that surround the frequently formulaic unfolding of the plot. Conan Doyle’s mysteries would be far less captivating if it weren’t for the wonderful descriptions of Holmes’ and Watson’s Baker Street digs and the fog-filled streets of London. When reading the books, it is sometimes possible to almost smell the pipe tobacco hanging in the air and hear the sound of horses hooves clopping by outside.
The greatest benefit of mysteries though comes from matching wits with the writer, by solving the clues and guessing the culprit before it is spelled out for you. It’s the same sort of enjoyment that comes from filling in crosswords and completing Soduko puzzles. In each of these forms, we are able to grapple, for a change, with problems that are ultimately solvable. Unlike the larger conundrums of life, we know that these smaller mysteries will ultimately be resolved. Perhaps that is why reading mysteries has become so much more enjoyable for me in recent years. Having had so much time to wrestle with the more challenging aspects of life, there is something very comforting about settling down with a problem that will be fully sorted out on or before the final page.
Doyle, S.A.C (1960). Complete Sherlock Holmes. Doubleday.
Hillerman, T. (1990). The Jim Chee Mysteries: Three Classic Hillerman Mysteries. HarperCollins
James, P.D. (2004). Devices and Desires. Vintage.