Don’t tell me that you’ve never once felt the urge to murder someone. Don’t tell me you’ve never once in your life contemplated someone else’s demise by your hand and planned every meticulous and gloriously sordid detail. (For legal reasons, both sentences are jokes.) Even if you’re not verging on the psychotic like me, there is something undeniably alluring about a death under suspicious circumstances. The intrigue, the mystery, the perversion. And when this attraction is combined with unique and quirky detective-like characters, an intricate storyline, and unpredictable plot twists, it makes for the perfect book.
Even if the crime genre isn’t for you, practically everyone knows of world-famous literary detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple and Morse to name but a few. One might mistakenly say that reading the books they star in has practically become redundant with the number of screen adaptations that have happened over the years. Nevertheless, reading a murder mystery is an unparalleled experience. A good piece of crime fiction will keep you guessing until the very last minute. It will play with your mind, subvert your expectations. But this, of course, is all elementary. Nonetheless, even a book with the most mind-blowing plot is only as good as the characters that drive it.
When we think of crime fiction, there very well may be the basic template of a storyline that springs to mind. More often, what we recognise tends to be the names of authors like Christie, Conan Doyle, Cleeves, le Carré. Each of these writers has garnered great acclaim in no small part because of their characters, the best of which are memorable not only because of their sleuthing abilities, but also their inherent eccentricities. Who could forget Holmes’s iconic outfit of a deerstalker with a pipe, or Poirot’s pedantic nature? And let’s not forget the trademark moustache! I for one believe that Poirot’s moustache was the single greatest piece of literary description to ever grace the printed press. No one can convince me that Poirot’s genius is not connected to his moustache, much like Samson, and that without it his little grey cells would be much worse for the wear.
Detective characters aside, murder mysteries are essentially an examination of human nature. They lay bare the darkest depths of the human soul and reveal the twisted motivations that, in the killer’s mind, have justified their actions. It might be a matter of self-preservation or simple bloodlust. Either way, this exploration into the duplicity of man, the hidden forces that drive us to do the very worst things, indisputably intrigues us. Is it because we see ourselves in these contorted characters? Is it because it shows us how easy it could be to choose darkness if we let go of our morals? I certainly hope not. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Henry says of murder: ‘That surge of power and delight, of confidence, of control. That sudden sense of the richness of the world. Its infinite possibility’. And while I do not condone this opinion in any shape or form, murder mysteries as pieces of fiction could be said to have the same effect. They train your brain, sharpen your senses, trick you, make you see one set of events in many different ways. Once you’ve finished the book, and you close the back cover, there very well may be a moment, however ethereal or fleeting, when you too see the world around you in a new light.
So, why is murder mysterious? It must be something other than the power of alliteration. Why are we forever pulled back to these stories that depict the greatest evil and depravity of human nature? Perhaps, because in the solving of it, in being drawn into the plot and following the journey of its resolution, we are satisfying our love of a chase.
‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot.’