What Murder Mysteries Solve

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At the beginning of December, I turned to whodunit fiction as a respite from the accumulated exhaustion of a long year, and the more recent stresses of writing about the horrors of the war in Israel and Gaza. But why, if that was my purpose, would I find solace in such an inherently violent genre?

I now realize that what I really craved, and found in abundance in these novels, was solutions. The heart of this genre is not the murders that precipitate the plot, but the process by which they are solved — and, above all, the promise that they will be.

The Detection Club, a literary society, was formed in 1930 by a group of prominent British mystery writers, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. Members had to swear an oath promising that their fictional detectives “shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them,” and that their mystery solutions would never rely on “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God.”

It’s a telling promise: No one cared what kinds of crimes were to be solved, or who was to solve them. But when it came to the process of solving the crimes, rules were rules.

That is what makes mysteries comforting even when the events they depict are horrifying. Unlike the horrors of the real world, or even less formulaic forms of crime fiction like thrillers, the mystery genre promises readers an ending in which their questions are answered and some form of justice is done.

My read this week, “A Place of Execution” by Val McDermid, is a perfect example of that. The crimes at the heart of the book are horrifying — in fact, they were very close to the limit of what I can bear to read, because I have a hard time with depictions of violence against children. But the promise of a solution at the end was just enough to keep me reading.

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What Murder Mysteries Solve

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