Why are mysteries so popular?

Ghost Music cover for signatureI’ve loved mysteries my entire reading life. I started The Hardy Boys and collected every book in the series. I still remember going to Al’s Used Bookstore every week or so as a kid and looking for the books I needed to complete the set. I kept all of those Hardy Boys books and even handed them down to my son recently.

As I grew older, the name of the series changed, but that impulse to read mysteries never wavered: Joe and Frank Hardy simply made way for Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke), Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly), Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro (Dennis Lehane), among other recent favorites.

The great appeal of mysteries, for me, is that they attempt to make sense of what is otherwise chaotic. A mystery is basically a story that gives meaning to what is otherwise confusing or even dangerous. And if you think about it, the hope of finding a master thread in the midst of the unknown is about more than an individual crime—that broader desire for meaning is part of just about everything we do in life. Mysteries just happen to give it to us in a neat and exciting package.

I also love mysteries because there is often an exploration of good vs. evil, and of all the gray in between those extremes. I’m a fan of the gray, both when reading and writing. Most of us live in the gray and that makes seeing characters struggling with good and evil in crime fiction all the more appealing.

The joy of writing is that it forces me to think very clearly about how important stories are to everyday life. Narrative helps us find (or create) meaning while navigating those gray waters between good and evil. Stories reveal how seemingly disconnected events are, in fact, tied together as part of a broader whole.

That same sense of narrative and making sense of chaos is what so intrigues me about how the past and present interact. I’m fascinated by how the past continues to live in the present and my characters often find themselves pulled by this same energy.

In my novel Ghost Music, for instance, Seattle Detective Marcus Brace has been doing his best to ignore a traumatic family past, only to receive a phone call that forces him to confront everything he’s been running from. He can’t escape the past. And neither, he learns, can the murderer. When the killer targets those closest to him, Marcus finds himself on journey not only to find a murderer but also to solve a family mystery that has been hidden for decades. In a sense, Ghost Music is a mystery that also challenges how we think about history.

I’ve started on the sequel to Ghost Music and find myself drawn once again toward an exploration of how one event ripples outward and how the past haunts the present. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


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