One evening last week, after digesting about three times the recommended daily allowance of political news and making myself nauseous with anxiety about the state of the world, I resorted to a familiar remedy. My husband found me in the half-lit bedroom, staring at a flickering iPad. I looked up and shrugged.
“Icelandic crime drama,” I said.
He nodded understandingly, and shut the door.
I’ve been like this for decades, I’m afraid. Thanks to a family friend, I heard or read all but the creepiest Sherlock Holmes adventures in elementary school. I spent a fiendishly lovely middle-school summer following Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple from one bloodstained British drawing-room to the next. In high school, I indiscriminately absorbed Alfred Hitchcock and Tony Hillerman, Edgar Allen Poe and Murder, She Wrote.
Whether they’re dark and violent or corny and cozy, whodunits or procedurals or a little of both, I still love mysteries. On glum, rainy evenings when everything seems out of joint, I’ll open a Ruth Rendell or a P.D. James or a Dorothy Sayers like some people open a bottle of wine.
There are certain moods, certain species of confusion and hopelessness, that only Harriet Vane can fix.
Part of the appeal of mysteries is that of any kind of genre fiction: the pleasure of watching creative minds test the boundaries of a form. The murder mystery as we know it, the kind with clues and a cast of suspects, has been around since at least the mid-1800s, and writers are still coming up with not only new cases but new settings and situations. What happens when a detective is delusional (River) or has lost the talent for detecting (Broadchurch)? What happens when the protagonist is not simply struggling with standard-issue Morose Detective Syndrome but with more realistic, and immediate, family and financial problems (Happy Valley)? What happens when a crime unfolds in a famously serene place, like New Zealand (Top of the Lake), Denmark (The Killing) or Sweden (Wallander)?
The answer to all of these questions is that rewarding surprises unfold within a soothingly familiar frame. The answer to the last question is that you’ll happily suspend disbelief, at least until Stephen Colbert reminds you that “Ninety percent of Swedish crime actually occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
Mysteriously, or maybe not so mysteriously, murder mysteries don’t remind me of violence I’ve witnessed or experienced. They never scare me—well, almost never. Perhaps it’s because the violence in mysteries bears only a surface resemblance to real-life violence: it happens in a universe better than ours, a place where the moral order can be threatened, even wounded, but is destined to prevail. No matter how flawed the detectives, no matter how often they glimpse themselves in their quarries or falter under pressure from suspects or witnesses or bosses or lovers, we readers and viewers know that the evidence—the facts!—will emerge, the puzzle will be solved, and justice, of some sort, will eventually be done. Even in the messier worlds of 1930s American noir or present-day Nordic noir, it’s still possible to tell right from wrong, good from bad, and guilty from innocent.
In a 2013 essay, crime novelist Jason Webster observes that in many countries, detective fiction gained popularity just as traditional religious institutions began to lose power. He proposes that the fictional detective functions as as a quasi-religious figure, a priest for an age that has lost its faith in priests. It’s true that fictional detectives often live ascetic lives, and work in self-imposed isolation. But the detective’s job isn’t to worship great mysteries—it’s to destroy them. He or she performs what seem to be miracles, but are revealed to be something both more pedestrian and more satisfying: conclusions based on the available facts. As one Baker Street client exclaims after a typically astonishing Holmesian deduction is explained to him, “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it, after all.”
The powers of the fictional detective are extraordinary but not extrasensory, and the unwritten contract between mystery writer and mystery reader is that every reader gets the same set of clues as the protagonist. If we pay close enough attention, if we think a bit harder and more clearly, we might be able to nab the bad guys, too, and restore some order to our own universes.
Of course, reason isn’t everything, and fictional detectives, for whom emotional constipation is almost part of the job description, often learn the hard way that feelings also matter. But their sharpest weapons are always observation and logic, and secrets are their ultimate adversaries.
No wonder that authoritarian regimes, whose power depends on mystery and confusion, tend to hate detective stories. Webster points out that they were banned in both Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy. In Nazi Germany, foreign detective stories were outlawed, and the popular domestic versions were co-opted by the Third Reich and used to burnish the reputation of the German police. Spain’s surrealistic variation on the genre took off only in the 1970s, after the fall of Franco.
Perhaps that’s why, these days especially, I feel better after some quality time with DCIs Jane Tennison and John Luther (please, someone, make that buddy movie), or Lord Peter Wimsey, or the indefatigable Miss-not-Mrs. Mary Russell. Their worlds, for all their gore and intrigue, are simpler and more predictable than ours. But in those worlds and this one, mysteries are finite, facts are stubborn, and in the end, the truth tends to win.
Top: Alfred Hitchcock playing around with the giant prop telephone used in Dial M for Murder. Thanks to Person of LWON Emma Marris, who asked me for TV recommendations and then told me to write this post.