I read a lot as a teen. I read young adult fantasy, regular old fantasy, Judy Blume, various smut, Tom Robbins, fucking Camus, Anne Rice… the list goes on. (I’m not really sure why Camus is fucking Camus, but somehow it seems right). Amidst all of that, one of the most atypical reading habits I had was Agatha Christie. I collected old pocket paperbacks with amazing mid-century illustrations on their covers — I still have a box of these under my bed. I’d often start one on a Sunday morning and finish by suppertime. This was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with crime fiction.
Sometimes — halfway through binge watching another British or Swedish crime drama series — I wonder why this genre is so comforting to me. The darker and more psychologically complex the better. I’m also strangely drawn to the figure of the lonely detective who probably drinks too much: Jane Tennison, Kurt Wallander. I find these characters far too easy to relate to.
But it all started with ‘Ten Little Indians’ (or — to be politically correct — ‘And Then There Were None’). It was a paperback that had belonged to my grandma. After she died I scavenged a few of her books. This isn’t the typical detective/ police procedural I would become so accustomed to later. It was a gripping tale of guests on a remote island being murdered one by one. It’s not far from the slasher horror genre that would come along later, but without the gore… and with an explanation at the end.
Once I’d read about five or six Christies (I was probably about 15 by then), I had absorbed the formula. Whodunnit was never the initial suspect, and it was probably not the first person I guessed either. There was always a vital piece of evidence that connected people in an unexpected way, and it was never revealed until the very end. When it was revealed, the murder made perfect sense. If you accept revenge, jealousy, or greed as sensible reasons to murder.
Maybe its this wrapping up that is so appealing. I started reading murder mysteries during the years when I was first grappling with the reality that sometimes people die young, tragically, and for no good reason. Crime fiction applies firm logic to this incomprehensible fact. When someone is murdered, there’s a motive.
In real life, it’s rarely easy to tie up all of the loose ends when someone meets a violent end. The charm of the murder mystery is that it presents a puzzle you know from the outset will be solved. There’s no such certainty in real life.
There’s also something strangely compelling about trying to fathom the psychological factors that lead a human to maliciously end the life of another human. It’s something that I can’t imagine doing, and yet people do it every day, whether out of anger or through calculated planning.
At the end of ‘And Then There Were None’ we discover that all of the murder victims have in fact committed murder themselves, and their deaths are meant to bring them to justice. There’s never a good reason to commit murder, in my opinion (self-defense, okay). The fact that a person can rather easily come to believe that there is a good reason to kill someone gets at the deepest, darkest corner of human psychology and morality.
I enjoy crime drama because it’s fun to solve mysteries, but also because it pokes at these dark corners of what makes us human.