Mysteries – Why We Love Reading Them and Writing Them

Sherlock Holmes

Mysteries have been around for ages, dating as far back as Edgar Allan Poe penning “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. It’s recognized as the first modern detective story. And then there’s Arthur Conan Doyle who created the most famous detective of all times, Sherlock Holmes, first appearing in 1887 in “A Study in Scarlet.” Those are the forerunners. Since then many great mysteries have followed.

But the question is, what is it about mysteries that make us love them? When we read them, why can’t put them down? What fascinates us so about mysteries?

I love a good mystery or thriller! I love reading them and I love writing them. I’m no psychologists, but I’m going to play arm-chair psychologist today and take a stab at why we love mysteries.

Most readers love the thrill of the chase, action, and suspense — even danger — as long as it can be enjoyed from a safe distance — from the pages of a book or a movie screen.

I believe it’s in our DNA to problem-solve. As with a puzzle or Rubik’s Cube, we must fit the pieces together. And when we put the pieces together, solve the problem, or figure out “who dunnit” we are affirmed as the intelligent beings we always knew we were.

Mysteries take us on an adventure, an escape. We can live vicariously through the experience of the protagonist, and we can accomplish great and heroic feats through him or her. I have no illusion that I’m a hero in my own little world. That’s why I love stepping into the shoes of a great detective or spy.

When the good guy or girl prevails, all is right with the world for that particular moment after reading these two small words, “The End.” Endorphins surge through our bodies just as they do after eating a decadent piece of chocolate or sipping a chilled glass of Chardonnay — or whatever takes you to your happy place. 🙂

I believe writers write mysteries for the same reasons. We want to give readers a delectable memorable experience. We want to offer them a treat for the soul. In my estimation, there’s no higher artistic achievement than that.

So what do you think? Drop me a line tell me why you love to read or write mysteries.

Au Revoir!


4 thoughts on “Mysteries – Why We Love Reading Them and Writing Them

  1. There are several writing books that address the reasons why we are attracted to specific genres. Lisa Cron has written a writer’s manual on the psychology behind what attracts the reader, and the way to manipulate the reader’s response to your prose.

    Cron addresses the opening paragraph and how to use the psychological make-up of the reader to place your narrative in the shopping cart. To delve into the reader’s mind she explains what triggers the reader. In regard to mysteries, the reader is a person that requires balance, that wrong be resolved by right. This is a mental version of everything has a place and must be in its place. To be sure a certain amount of puzzle solving is included in this love of mysteries. But the pay-off for the avid reader of mysteries is the line in the book, “And the killer is…..” This returns the world from chaos to normal once the mystery is resolved.

    As a side note, Cron’s book is noteworthy for her focusing the writer on the first paragraph and how to construct a page turner. As well as pulling the mental strings of the reader, which releases the dopamine in the brain to excite the reader. In a way the writer is forcing the release of a drug in the mind of the reader, which causes them to believe this is a great book. Of course you still need to write a great book. But this gives your book an edge over others.

    I believe an example used was the following.

    Reader: Have you read this new book out, The Case of the XYZ?”
    Friend: “No, is it good?”
    Reader: “Best book I ever read.”
    Friend: “Have you finished it?”
    Reader: “Yes. I couldn’t pout it down. Read all night.”
    Friend: “Loan me your copy.”
    Reader: “No, this copy is mine, buy your own.”

    Taking a reader from a fan to a fanatic is one of the goals of Cron’s book.

    The name of the book is “Wired for Story.” By Lisa Cron.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I should have called you and asked you to write this post for me.:-) I think the psychology you gave for why we love reading mysteries is excellent! In fact, I learned a lot from your feedback. I had no idea there is a “deliberate” psychology behind how to write mysteries, or that there is a manual on how to do it. Of course I knew that there is a technique that must be employed to keep readers turning the pages, but I honestly did not know that there were specific ways to manipulate the readers’ responses to prose. You can bet I’ll be getting Lisa Cron’s book. Thanks for sharing this wonderful feedback with me, Michael!


  2. Catherine – there is not a book available that I can find to accurately explain this theory of writing for the reader. There are any number of books that teach hooks, and beginnings. But the deeper use of what I will call “tropes” here – and do not confuse this with tropes in the conventional sense, are not listed in any book I can find.

    Who is your reader is the first question you ask. This is not what they look like, or their financial status, or anything you can describe about them other than their inner desires. And with this answer is how you utilize this knowledge to hook your reader.

    Romance – the reader is looking for a validation that perhaps did not come in an earlier life. “I cannot live without you, and I will sacrifice everything to be with you.” This is usually easier to explain about films, because we all have seen the ones which are blatant examples.

    Pretty Woman – it has this foundation and it is parsed out throughout the story. Rich, cold-hearted man falls for a woman way under his societal status. But if you recall, he ultimately gives up his ruthless tactics and decides to “make things,” as part of his character arc. This is symbolic of his actions at the end wherein he goes against the grain and comes to find the woman. He sacrifices to be with her. We know he is still rich. But he turns around his character’s burning desire to best his father and becomes a mench – human being.

    You still need to tell a good story. But you build off the foundation of this inner trigger for the reader.

    Mystery – changing chaos into order. Agatha Christie’s famous character – Hercule Poirot is the one individual who can control chaos. Name any mystery – Cozy, police procedure, amateur sleuth, there is an individual who can CONTROL chaos. And that is at the core of the readers inner desire. So much so that the reader thinks of themselves in the heroes shoes. The reader wants control because in their life they feel they don’t have it to some degree.

    Your genre, which is military/spy/world disorder is a sub-set of mystery. Your hero is resolving chaos. So knowing this up front allows you to write that great hook at the beginning, and throughout the book reflect the main character’s quest for righting wrong in small details and interactions with other characters in both subplot and main plot.

    The Michael Douglas film Wall Street or the film Revenge of the Nerds are basically telling the story of Jack and the Bean Stalk. I feel powerless and cannot take on the things which keep me down, but my book has a character who is also somewhat weak, but still takes down the force which oppresses him/her.

    Most of these inner motivations the reader holds dear can be fleshed out in these fairy tales. And, these motivation statements can be piggy backed with others as long as you stay true to the desire of the reader.

    Catherine, this is a theory, and know that I have not made this work…….yet. Not that the theory is necessarily wrong, but I have not carved out my spot on Amazon and put books out there with this idea actively in action in the book.

    Think this over. It may have value, or may not.

    1. Michael,

      Your comments are really excellent! You’ve given really great examples in books and film to drive the point home. Had I known you were so knowledgeable on the subject I would have asked you to do a guest post, honestly. 🙂 Thanks so much for your feedback!


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