I love to read mysteries. I used to think of mysteries as the book equivalent of candy corn, my special treat which gave me a rush but not one which necessarily was feeding my brain. But as a now over fifty-year long reader of mysteries, I’ve come to realize that not only do mysteries feed my dopamine-driven need for the exhilaration of hunt and seek and find; they also most definitely feed my brain and my soul.
Well-crafted mysteries plunge the depths of human existence. After all, what moves us more to consider the meaning of life than the extinguishing of a life? A common characteristic of the kind of mystery series that I love is the isolated or damaged sleuth, fighting not only to find the answer to who killed the victim but also working out his or her own existential issues.
In novels such as Blood Harvest or Awakening by Sharon Bolton, or any of the Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the characters not only have to struggle with the case at hand but they also face personal issues: they feel like outsiders, they work in a hostile environment, they have relationship problems (lover, spouse, parent, child), suffer from addiction, have endured loss of a loved one, of innocence, of motivation.
For the sleuth, solving the mystery is almost a vacation for them, a release from dealing with all their personal issues, an escape from their own reality into the horrible facts of the crime. Of course, there is backlash from using a crime to escape your own inner demons, but that only makes the books that much more interesting, complex, and in the end, meaningful for the reader — and nourishing for the soul of the reader.
Mysteries offer insight into how I deal with my own issues, and how people around me deal with theirs. Reading mysteries makes me more empathetic to others, and more forgiving of myself. There is no doubt in my mind that reading Louise Penny’s Gamache novels make me a better person. Or that reading The Searcher by Tana French made me more appreciative of the physical world I inhabit, and the communities in which I live and work, while also reminding me of the commitment I owe to those struggling with poverty, loss, and despair.
Mysteries also stretch my brain because I have to work through a complex series of problems to reach a…