by Helen Currie Foster
At book groups I ask the beloved readers: “Why do we read mysteries?”
After a pause, for modesty, one honest person says: “We like to figure it out!”
Yes, we do. Why? Writer Patricia Cornwell, who created the forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, gives this answer as to why readers are fascinated by murder forensics: “To me, this goes back to our tribal survival instincts. If you can re-create a situation in your mind about what happened to someone, how that person died, there’s a better chance it won’t happen to you…[I]t’s part of the life force compelling us to look death in the face…We want to learn what happened…so we’ll feel less vulnerable about the same thing happening to us. It’s the kind of curiosity that propels us to study monsters.” https://amzn.to/3vQ3fPe
We want to know. Who killed Cock Robin? Who killed the two princes in the Tower—was it really Richard III? https://www.medievalists.net/2021/02/new-study-strengthens-claims-richard-iii-murdered-the-princes-in-the-tower/
Was Henry II complicit in his knights’ gruesome slaughter of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral? https://blog.britishmuseum.org/thomas-becket-the-murder-that-shook-the-middle-ages/ Curious humans still ask, who’s the guilty party?
Astrophysicist Mario Livio has been curious enough about curiosity to write a book on it: “Why? What Makes Us Curious.” https://amzn.to/3Gm7jLW
“Other animals are curious,” he says, “but only humans are worried and curious about reasons and causes for things. Only humans really ask the question, ‘Why?’” https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-27/why-are-humans-so-curious
While survival provides an evolutionary purpose for curiosity, Livio points out, “One of the things that researchers still don’t have an answer to, is that we, as humans, seem to be much more curious than what is just necessary for survival.”
According to Livio, we have two basic types of curiosity that show up in two different parts of our brains during MRI scans. One type is “perceptual curiosity”—what we feel when something surprises or puzzles us. “It is felt as a sort of uneasiness, an unpleasant situation … like an itch you need to scratch…,” he says. Yes, that creepy feeling, the hair on the nape of your neck prickling, because something doesn’t feel quite right. https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/makes-us-curious/
The interesting thing about murder is that we seem convinced that ultimately, the murderer will be found out. At least as early as the 14th century, in The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) knew readers were sure they could identify a murderer. “The Priest’s Tale” tells us, “Though it may skulk a year, or two, or three, Murder will out…”
In Hamlet (c.1602), King Claudius fears detection of his murder of Hamlet’s father. He confesses at prayer, “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon it, a brother’s murder.” Act III, Scene 4. Hamlet has already announced in a soliloquy, “For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.” Hamlet, Act II Sc. 2. Hamlet intends to play detective, sure that he himself can detect the king’s guilt by watching the king’s reaction to the play he has the actors perform: “I’ll observe his looks…if he but blench, I know my course.”
Literary agent Anne Tibbets says mystery readers insist on understanding what happened. We are outraged if the author dares hide or suppress clues: we want a fair shot at solving the murder. We evaluate each potential suspect; we note physical clues; we scrutinize alibis; we use our own human experience to test the strength of each suspect’s motives. But as readers, of course we depend on the protagonist asking the right questions for us, identifying the victim, interviewing witnesses, examining the crime scene, noticing every salient detail. Each murder mystery effectively presents us with a miniature history of a crime, and we must absorb, and dissect, that history in order to satisfy ourselves we know “what happened.”
Because we’re curious. Or, as Alice observes in her visit to Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Lewis Carroll dubbed Alice “this curious child” and indeed, following Alice down the rabbit hole, we too want to know what the golden key will open and what’s behind the little door.
Alice is an indefatigable questioner. For instance, quizzing the Mock Turtle about his school days, she asks, “What else had you to learn?”
“Well, there was Mystery,” the Mock Turtle replied…”Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography…”
Mystery, for history, ancient and modern. The Mock Turtle is spot on. So much of history remains a mystery: no matter how many questions we ask, no matter how skilled and diligent the historian, no matter how thick the tome or how voluminous the footnotes, we never have all the documents, all the testimony, needed to understand everything that happened during, say, the great convulsions of history. Just think of the unknown moments buried during Reconstruction, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Russian Revolution, or…
Like Alice, mystery readers are “curiouser and curiouser.” The joy of being a mystery reader, after experiencing the miniature history within a good murder mystery, we reach the conclusion we’ve awaited. For once, at least, our curiosity is satisfied. We know “what happened.”
Author Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer mysteries, set in the small town of Coffee Creek, Texas, somewhere west of Dripping Springs and east of Fredericksburg. In Book 7, Alice finds herself in a lethal battle over hidden art and the victim’s will. Available on Amazon and IngramSpark, and at BookPeople in Austin.
Find her online: http://helencurriefoster.com/ and