Like most boys of my generation I was hooked on detective stories and could think of nothing more exciting than becoming a detective when I grew up. I watched Dragnet and Spin and Marty on television, read Hardy Boys stories, and saw all of the old Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone. I drew the line, however, at reading stories about Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. When I was older I bought my own copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes and read it cover to cover.
Later as our own children grew up, my wife Diane and I bought them books about Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, and, of course, The Great Brain.
According to Christopher Badcock, a London psychologist, detective fiction “is the distinctive literary genre of modern, industrial societies.” The used bookstore that Diane manages has its large mystery section and the detective story is still the mainstay of many movies and television programming. Last holiday season one of the most popular movies released was a whodunit entitled Knives Out. It was one of the top 10 films of 2019, featuring a plot full of twists and turns and an all-star ensemble cast. Daniel Craig played master detective Benoit Blanc, with a Foghorn Leghorn accent. There are rumors, however, of Benoit Blanc returning in a sequel next year.
Over the past couple of years I, who once disdained the smart and resourceful Nancy Drew, am embarrassed to admit that I have been reading what are called cozy mysteries. This is a subgenre of detective fiction in which violence is downplayed and the action mostly occurs in a small community. The sleuths are frequently women and often there is a theme for the series, based on the detective’s job, pet, or hobby. There are usually several recurring characters. Some of these are eccentric and serve as comic relief.
I have enjoyed the late M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, which features a public relations executive who retires to the picturesque English Cotswolds and becomes a detective aided by a former employee and her on-and-off husband. Another guilty pleasure is Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series, which describes the adventures of a rural Minnesota cookie baker (complete with recipes). Early on I had read Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, a classic cozy mystery series, in which an elderly spinster draws parallels from village life to solve various crimes. I have also read a couple of Tamar Meyer’s Pennsylvania Dutch mysteries, which describe Mennonite innkeeper Magdalena Yoder and her Amish friends and relatives. My favorite plot line so far involves a body that is discovered in a barrel of sauerkraut, when it’s opened for a wedding reception dinner.
Diane and I have also enjoyed watching Midsomer Murders, a long running British television detective drama. The show follows Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby and his sergeant in solving the frequent murders that occur in the scenic, but lethal, villages in fictional Midsomer County. DCI Barnaby has a psychology degree and isn’t afraid to use it. Every episode has a distinctive theme (from crop circles to cheese making) and invariably involves some sort of outdoor fair or festival.
In the first 14 seasons there were 246 murders, 12 accidental deaths, 11 suicides. and eight deaths from natural causes. In series 17 alone, 12 locals were strangled, 13 were poisoned, four were killed by arrows, six were decapitated and 16 drowned — including one in a vat of soup! Due to the high body count, some television critics have suggested that Midsomer County just might be the most dangerous place to live in the Commonwealth.
The appeal of such detective fiction may be rooted in an evolutionary compulsion to solve puzzles. People don’t like unanswered questions or unresolved conflicts. Detective stories are often like a game in which the reader matches wits with the author in trying to solve the crime.
The murder mystery in particular reinforces the importance of the protagonists using their problem-solving skills to aid in survival. People’s fascination with crime and criminals also relates to the inherent fear people have of unpredictable and uncontrollable violence. Reading a mystery allows us to intellectualize the experience and thus create emotional distance from the fear of crime. Within the confines of detective fiction we can observed all the action safely while the danger is contained.
Fictional detectives usually have special abilities, particularly in observation, reasoning, deduction and intuition. Through identification with the stories’ protagonists we can vicariously experience these super human powers.
It is not unusual for readers to also identify with the villains to some extent. Recognizing that they, too, might have some anti-social impulses, the readers may be relieved to find out that the villain turns out to be someone very different from themselves. Detective stories also satisfy our need for justice and closure. The evil doer is typically caught and punished for his crimes. Detective fiction is one way we try to make sense of our world.
Author Joe Bunting says, “… in every story, at some level, is the question of motivation: Why did this person behave in this way? Faulkner and Shakespeare and Milton and Agatha Christie all have the question of motivation at their heart.” Since every crime must have a motive, reading detective fiction is also a psychological exercise to determine a motive that is psychologically consistent. Badcock says that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, maintained a large collection of detective fiction in the house in London, where he lived during his final years. At the end of his life, Freud was working on a book that he considered to be basically a historical murder mystery. I’m not planning to start working on mine for a while, yet. First I need to collect some good recipes.