….And Then What Happens?

By Helen Currie Foster

If you haven’t read Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, or his latest, The Man Who Died Twice, fear not—no spoilers here. Oh, maybe a couple of teases, but that’s my theme today: curiosity as a driver of mystery novels.

George Saunders, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, his boldly subtitled “master class on writing, reading and life,” recounts his experience submitting a short story to Bill Buford, fiction editor of The New Yorker. After receiving some “painful edits,” Saunders asked Buford what he liked about the story: “Well, I read a line. And I like it…enough to read the next.”

Saunders gives a short answer to why we keep reading: “Because we want to.” And why do we want to? “That’s the million-dollar question. What makes a reader keep reading.”

Back to The Thursday Murder Club. We meet the varied characters of an upscale home for the elderly in scenic Kent who meet weekly to solve murders—old and new. Some characters seem ordinary, like the new club member, Joyce, whose journal depicts her as sprightly and slightly ditzy. Some, like Elizabeth, are veiled in mystery. Is Bogdan just a dumb Polack? We begin to wonder what’s he hiding. Then we begin to wonder what each character’s hiding. We also desperately want to know who’s buried—no, who else is buried––in the nuns’ graveyard on the hill. We read in the bathtub. We sneak our Kindle into the examining room and finish another chapter before the nurse arrives. Same with The Man Who Died Twice: we keep reading the next line! Before beginning, I asked myself, how can Orman’s second book be as compelling as Thursday? Just hide and watch. For each character—whether detective or potential villain—a slow (but never too slow) reveal will move you, the reader, to keep reading the next sentence.

In my blog Curiouser and Curiouser I mentioned astrophysicist Mario Livio’s book, WHY: What Makes Us Curious. https://www.amazon.com/Why-What-Makes-Us-Curious-ebook/dp/B01M7WV0LV/ref=sr_1_4?qid=1638133468&refinements=p_27%3AMario+Livio&s=books&sr=1-4 Livio begins by discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” a very short 19th century tale of a woman who has just received news of her husband’s death. Livio cites Chopin’s “singular ability to generate curiosity with almost every single line of prose.” He says she inspires “empathic curiosity,” driving the reader incessantly to ask “why?” and to try to understand the desires and thoughts of the protagonist. Chopin also uses the element of surprise—“a sure stratagem to kindle curiosity through heightened arousal and attention.”

The physiological basis for such heightened curiosity? When we encounter the unexpected, our brains assume we may need to take action. “This results in a rapid activation of the sympathetic nervous system” as we focus on the key issue, says Livio. He notes that when we’re surprised and have a fear response, both fast and slow brain pathways are activated. On the fast track, our thalamus sends sensory signals to the amygdala which directs our emotional response. But on the slow track, our thalamus sends signals to our cerebral cortex before going to the amygdala—allowing a “more thoughtful” response. 

And don’t mystery readers have highly developed cerebral cortexes? Of course they do. For starters, though, we request a protagonist who engages us, so our empathic curiosity can push us to the next sentence. Perhaps we need to care at least a little for the protagonist in order to want to know what happens next. All the great tales combine empathic curiosity and surprise. Will Kim and his lama find the River of the Arrow? Will Mr. Darcy ever propose a second time to Elizabeth Bennet? Will Gus and Call survive the cattle drive to Montana? Will Frodo make it to the Cracks of Doom? Will George Smiley figure out the mole’s identity? We want to know what happens next. Mystery readers beg their authors: make us want to know!

Livio highlights some remarkably curious humans. One is Leonardo da Vinci (described by art historian Kenneth Clark as “the most relentlessly curious man in history”). A look at Leonardo’s Notebooks shows as just one example of his curiosity his study of human physiology [186] and anatomy—skeleton, musculature, circulation.

Leonardo provides detailed drawings and descriptions of human limbs, and then moves on to how they work: “The walking of man is always after the universal manner of walking in animals with 4 legs, inasmuch as just as they move their feet crosswise after the manner of a horse in trotting, so man moves his 4 limbs crosswise; that is, if he puts forward his right foot in walking he puts forward, with it, his left arm and vice versa, invariably.” We come to believe Leonardo was not just trying for painterly accuracy: he wanted to know how bodies work (as well as why candle flame moves as it does, how screws and tempered springs work, how to depict perspective…).

It goes almost without saying that mystery readers are notoriously curious. We love to plunge into new or unique settings—Alaska (Dana Stabenow), Southside Chicago (Sara Paretzky), Scotland (Ian Rankin), the south of France (Martin Walker), the Four Corners (Tony and now Anne Hillerman)…and don’t forget Texas, big cities and small towns, the coast, the border, the Hill Country. We’re delighted with new worlds—paranormal mysteries. We’re curious about alibis—any holes? What exactly did the medical examiner say? Which facts point to a motive—or lack thereof? 

Another example of a “relentlessly curious” human is astrophysicist Richard Feynman: “Feynman’s genius and achievements in…physics are legendary…He became known to the general public as a member of the panel that investigated the space shuttle Challenger disaster…When asked to identify what he thought was the key motivator for scientific discovery, Feynman replied, ‘It has to do with curiosity. It has to do with wondering what makes something do something.’” [10]

“What makes something do something.” And what makes someone do something. The stuff of mystery.

Livio considers the drive for knowledge a deeply human characteristic, with curiosity a powerful force not just for childhood cognitive development, but for intellectual and creative expression later in life. [9] He says “perceptual curiosity” motivates visual inspection—for instance, when we see something novel, puzzling, or an extreme outlier. Opposite “perceptual curiosity” is “epistemic curiosity”—sheer desire for knowledge, which Thomas Hobbes called “lust of the mind” because it only leaves you wanting more. 

Well, isn’t that your basic mystery reader? The best mysteries leave us momentarily satisfied—we want to read each next line until we get to the very last line—but still wanting more. Where’s the next book?

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Mystery Series, and lives north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. Find the series at BookPeople, Amazon or IngramSpark and at various libraries. The books (Ghost Cave, Ghost Dog, Ghost Letter, Ghost Dagger, Ghost Next Door, Ghost Cat, and Ghost Daughter) include “Ghost” in their titles because an old sin, old love, or old death still hangs around…resulting in a new murder. Ghost Cat won “Semifinalist” for Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Kirkus says of Ghost Daughter, “An appealing character headlines a solid thriller with panache.” 

Follow her at http://www.helencurriefoster.com,

https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/

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