The mystery genre is extremely popular around the world. Readers have enjoyed sinking their teeth into a classic “whodunit” for centuries, and some of today’s most popular detective stories stem from the tales of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In perusing the mystery section of your local bookstore, you are sure to have your pick of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot mysteries. The dynamic duo that is Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson is still devoured not only through literature, but also in the cinema with Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Sherlock set the late nineteenth century, as well as on television with CBS’s Elementary and BBC’s Sherlock. Both shows are adaptations of Doyle’s original characters, set in present-day London and New York City.
But what is it that makes this genre so attractive?
Starting a new mystery novel is more than cracking open a new book (or easing open a new book, for those bibliophiles out there who abhor breaking the spine). Starting a new mystery novel is the beginning of a new puzzle. Mystery readers of all ages—from the young children reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys to the full-grown adults reading Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, and J. D. Robb—get to step into the detective’s shoes and navigate the text. All are great plotlines that allow them to vicariously find clues, solve riddles, and if all goes well, deliver justice.
As in any successful genre, a likeable character is a must. Whether the main character in a mystery novel is a police detective, a private investigator, or simply a concerned citizen, readers must be able to connect with them in some way. Looking again at classic detective stories like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, it is easy to see how the love of a particular character can drive the success of a book or series.
Forget everything I said before. That breathless moment when you know something is going to throw the protagonist’s carefully outlined plans into disarray. The spike in your anxiety level when you know something that is going to happen before the detective does. That heartstopping instant when something tragic befalls your beloved hero (or heroine). The realization that your trustworthy narrator has figured out the mystery before you have. These are the reasons the mystery genre is so appealing. The intrigue that gently ensnares you in the first few chapters morphs into the kind of suspense that leaves you clutching the book while you lean over its pages, as if the closer you get to the words, the quicker you can move the story along. It seems like it’s taken eons to get to the end of the book; the stress has taken years off your life. You may never solve it at this rate. And then, all of a sudden, the answers are there and the book has ended. You glance around, dazed, surprised the outside world is still the same, what with the huge plot twist you now know. You realize you’ve been holding your breath. Your mind has been blown. Who could resist coming back for more?