W.H. Auden’s confession to being a “guilty” addict in the famous Harper Magazine article of 1948 (“The guilty vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict”) gave a certain cachet to the tastes of mystery-lovers everywhere. After all, if one of the foremost poets of the 20th century confesses to an addiction akin to tobacco or alcohol, and refers to an “intensity of craving” which permits him to do nothing else until he finishes a mystery, we lesser beings may all feel freer to own that the same compulsion governs us.
Certainly, one could argue that all the genres bestow upon us something which more serious literature, in its attempts at depicting — however fantastic the method — at least a spiritual realism, fails to do. As John G. Cawelti writes in the excellent academic study, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stores as Art and Popular Culture:
“Serious literature tends toward some kind of encounter with our sense of the limitations of reality, while formulas embody moral fantasies of a world more exciting, more fulfilling, or more benevolent than the one we inhabit. In these imaginary worlds we come temporarily nearer to our hearts’ desires and escape from the limiting reality around us. In escapist literature the writer creates an imaginary world in which fictional characters transcend the boundaries and frustrations the reader ordinarily experiences. The hero successfully overcomes his enemies and surmounts great danger, the lover has his or her desires fully met, the long-suffering saint is finally rewarded.”
Or, in the case of detective fiction, the solver of the mystery proves to be very, very smart…and always gets her man.
In A Talent to Deceive, a study of Agatha Christie novels, Robert Barnard posits that in that era of great change, the 1920s, with Europe, especially, still reeling from World War I, “the detective formula was comforting because it involved an infallible person who could spot the guilt and rid the community of the sinner.”
Detective stories allow us to not only be comforted by the idea that order can be restored out of chaos by this exceptional being, but also flatter us into thinking we ourselves possess the intellectual chops to do the same.
After all, especially in a “fair play” novel, aren’t we following right along with the detective? Often, don’t we narrow down the field of suspects to one of two or three and, are not we sometimes gratified — though still pleasantly surprised at the end – to discover that the guilty party was a member of our hand-selected group?
Thus, the anxiety occasioned merely by being born into the modern world (to quote Auden again, “the age of anxiety”) is somewhat eased by this conviction that, given the proper circumstances and perhaps an able assistant or two, we ourselves could bring order to a troublesome world.
We mystery lovers are all closet Poirots, Holmeses and Miss Marples. And so we read on, matching wits not only with the perpetrator but with our idols, the detectives. And that is why murder—fictional murder, anyway – is so very…well… so very soothing. After a hard day battling real problems, there’s nothing – perhaps accompanied by a nice cup of tea or a gin and tonic — like a nice poisoning to relax one. Is there?
Psychology of the Mystery
The Detective as Magician