I’ve always considered myself a fairly omnivorous reader when it comes to genre: besides focusing on literary fiction and/or classics for the duration of my English lit degrees, I’ve always read fantasy (I’m a Harry Potter kid as much as anyone from my generation) and science fiction (I wrote my MA thesis on Samuel Delany, after all). I’ve gotten super into comics and graphic novels the last four years or so and I’ve even been known to enjoy some (queer) romance and erotica. But mystery is just something I’ve never read. Why was I missing out on an entire genre? Had I rightly assumed that mysteries just “weren’t my thing,” or had I never really given mysteries a chance?
So I decided to read, what I think, are my first two real mysteries. I’ve certainly read books with an element of mystery in them—like Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith for example, but as far as I know I’ve never willingly and knowingly picked up a book from the mystery section at my library or at a bookstore.
I ended up reading Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party and Walter Mosley’s All I Did Was Shoot My Man. My choices were somewhat random: I crowdsourced suggestions on Facebook and Twitter—asking especially for diverse books and personal favourites—and got a lot of rad recommendations. Then I went to the local branch of my library and picked up whichever of the recommended books they happened to have. I had been told I “had” to read Christie, aka the Queen of Mystery, to get a sense of the classics, and had heard that Hercule Poirot—star of Halloween Party—was a beloved detective. Walter Mosley’s detective Easy Rawlins is also apparently much loved, but I had to settle for one of the books featuring his newer character, Leonid McGill. I had heard that All I Did Was Shoot My Man was the book that convinced hardcore Easy fans that Leonid was a pretty rad dude too.
One of the things that really struck me while reading Mosley and Christie was that even this obviously small sample of a genre involved a different way of reading. What I mean is, that with both books—which are very different kinds of mysteries in many ways—I found myself going back to re-read scenes I had already read for clues. Suddenly, based on new information I had got farther on in the book, a seemingly innocuous previous scene acquired new significance and I had to go back to it. I don’t think I’ve ever done this in any other genre that I’ve read. It was a very non-linear way of reading that was totally novel to me.
Another thing that I noticed was that the kind of enjoyment readers get from mysteries is very different from what people get from other genres. What I’m talking about is the intellectual puzzle that mysteries present. While I was reading these books, I kept thinking of the people I know who like doing crossword puzzles and Rubik’s cubes. Solving a mystery in a book struck me as a very similar brain activity. With both Mosley and Christie, I felt at times like I wasn’t quite smart enough, or at least smart in the right way, for their complex, multi-layered plots. But I have little patience or interest in Rubik’s cubes and most crosswords, so maybe that makes sense.
I was also kind of astounded how different the feel of Mosley and Christie’s books were, for two authors whose novels are always sorted into the mystery category. (I’ve since learned about mystery sub-genres like cozy/classic vs. hard-boiled which explains this). I found the whole premise of Halloween Party fascinating: although it’s centred on the murder of a child, it’s an oddly escapist book that doesn’t reflect the real trauma of such an event. There are no gruesome details. There seems to be a kind of distance between the premise of the story—something in reality quite terrible—and the intellectual puzzle that it presents for the reader to work on. Mosley’s world, in contrast, is this gritty, realist, urban jungle with seedy characters, moral grey areas, and danger lurking around every corner. There is no neat social order to restore when Leonid McGill finds out “whodunit”; it’s just back to business as usual, making a buck however he can and trying to stick to his moral principles which may or may not coincide with the law.
Overall verdict? I am intrigued, but as of yet not converted into a mystery reader. I feel like it’s a possibility, though, which is more than I could say a few weeks ago. Mystery lovers: where should I go from here?