The preeminent literary critic of the 20st century was quite clear when it came to mystery novels: He had no use for them.
“I finally felt that I was unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior [sawdust used for packing] in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails,” Edmund Wilson wrote in the New Yorker about reading “The League of Frightened Men” by Nero Wolfe.
It was the first of two detective fiction takedowns Wilson would write in the magazine in 1944—and it got worse from there.
“I began to nurse a rankling conviction that detective stories in general profit by an unfair advantage in the code which forbids the reviewer to give away the secret to the public—a custom which results in the concealment of the pointlessness of a good deal of this fiction and affords a protection to the authors which no other department of writing enjoys,” Wilson continued.
Pointless or not, people remain stubbornly fond of a good mystery, though some critics still delight in dismissing them. Eight of the top 15 books on the New York Times’ bestseller list are mysteries, and ditto for hit television shows through the ages, from “Perry Mason to “Murder, She Wrote” to “Big Little Lies.”
You may count me among those who go in for the kind of good time a solid mystery offers. But after reading Wilson’s thoughts, it makes me wonder: What’s wrong with all of us? Do we just have bad taste? Is this disease similar to harboring a genuine appreciation for Olive Garden breadsticks or reality television?
Wilson didn’t think so. He believed that mysteries grew popular between the two world wars due to “an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster.” The confusion in the wake of World War I — “Who had committed the original crime and who was going to commit the next one?”— made people love stories in which the crime was obvious, the good guys and bad guys clearly delineated, and the story put to bed when the good guy triumphed, as he always did.
There’s certainly something to be said for that theory, and our world is no less morally ambiguous than that of the interwar period. But I have a different hypothesis. I think we like mysteries because they are the ultimate asymmetrical fight. It’s not that the good guy always wins—it’s that, by all rights, he or she probably shouldn’t have.
Many of our most treasured sleuths are amateurs. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are teenagers, while Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is a nice, elderly British lady who putters around St. Mary Mead like any other spinster of her day, except when she’s outsmarting Scotland Yard’s finest.
(Miss Marple has a surprising number of opportunities to test her wits against professional detectives, by the way, given the size of her village. If I were you, I would steer clear of both St. Mary Mead and Cabot Cove, Maine, where mystery writer Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote” presides over what is surely the most murderous fishing village in the history of the world.)
Even the detectives who are detectives exist outside the law enforcement establishment. Jo Nesbo’s acerbic and heavily addicted Harry Hole is perpetually on the outs with many of his colleagues in the Oslo PD. Sherlock Holmes is a private detective, and so is Christie’s Hercule Poirot. (In some novels, Poirot is retired.) Holmes has been known to dabble in cocaine, and Poirot is a Belgian refugee who gets motion-sick.
This unlikely coterie of children, retirees, and alcoholics don’t just solve any sort of crime—they solve perfect crimes. Not because they’re brilliant—though, of course they are. Every great fictional sleuth possesses either an uncanny understanding of human nature, a religious devotion to logic and observation, or both. But that’s not why our mystery-solvers win the day—they win because they are relentless and obsessive. You always knew Lieutenant Colombo, of the eponymous show, was getting hot on the trail when he seemed to be finished mumbling through an interview with an impatient suspect, only to mutter the magic words— “Just one more thing.”
“Just one more thing” is what separates mysteries from fantasies. There is no magic in what our favorite sleuths do. They don’t actually read minds, they’ve simply trained themselves to look at the things no one else sees, to notice the smallest details, to listen and remember what people say and how they say it. They know how to separate what they actually know from what they have merely assumed. And, most importantly, they worry over a case until it is solved.
When you put it like that, any one of us could train ourselves to solve mysteries—and not just the mystery of “What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw,” but real mysteries. Like what our client meant by that comment, the objectives of our scheming coworkers, or how our lovers and friends truly feel about us.
Put simply, mysteries allow us to believe that we could all be the Miss Marple who outsmarts the arrogant detective from Scotland Yard, though we have less formal experience and neither look nor dress the part. A silly notion, until you consider that a teenager in a hoodie did manage to create the largest social network in the world, and a research chemist and mother of two became an “Iron Lady,” the most powerful woman in the world.
Mysteries may be a lot of things—escapist fun, guilty pleasures—but they are certainly not pointless.