Murder Most Foul at the Library

by Bill Peak

One of the nice things about books is they're so simple. No distracting pop-up ads, no confusing lay-outs, no need for a site map. You begin at the beginning, read through the middle to the last page, and there, logically enough, you find the end.

The library strives to be similarly user-friendly. Not only do we keep our books in neat order, we also place little images on the spines of many of them to indicate their contents. Patrons who wish to browse, can just wander the aisles, easily finding the type of book they prefer by the label it carries: a picture of a flower if they're interested in gardening, a pair of cowboy boots if it's a Western that suits their fancy. The most common label you'll come across in our library is the one for mysteries: a shadowy figure wearing a trench coat and fedora. Standing at the end of almost any aisle in the fiction section, you'll find the shelves before you positively festooned with little yellow mystery stickers.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of interesting. I mean what is it about mysteries that makes them so popular, keeps them flying off our shelves?

Well, so far as I'm concerned, part of the attraction is something mysteries share with all good story-telling: a sense of place. The great ones always invoke milieu—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fog-bound, gas-lit London, Tony Hillerman's arid rocky vistas, Agatha Christie's deceptively simple English villages. And while, paradoxically, it may be the presence of death, murder, that animates these tales, brings the place their authors imagined to life, it is, in many cases, the place itself we recall and love, the place that draws us back again and again to lose ourselves in a world other than our own.

But before we strike death completely from our list of suspects, we should recall there are those that believe the Grim Reaper is himself the best explanation for the popularity of these works. According to this theory, your average murder mystery appeals for the simple reason that it is so patently a fiction, the fact that it is just a story allowing us to reach out and touch the central mystery of human existence ... our own mortality ... without ever having to really think about the fact it might have anything to do with us or our own experience of life. And there may well be something to this. It would explain, for instance, the giddy gallows humor that so often characterizes these works. From time to time, I suppose, each of us has had the occasion to chuckle nervously at the thought of death.

The only problem with this theory is that there are many mysteries that don't, in fact, involve a killing. We read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (not so much as a hint of homicide) just as avidly as we do his Adventure of the Speckled Band (a particularly grotesque murder followed by the threat of a second). But if we must drop murder from our investigation (and from the phrase murder mystery), we are left with nothing more than a single evocative word ... and maybe that's it. Maybe there is nothing more mysterious about the appeal of a good mystery than the very fact that it is a mystery. To keep pace with an author as he leads us through the seemingly inexplicable circumstances surrounding some disturbing event, to watch as, one by one-and without ever letting slip the fragile bonds of verisimilitude-he sheds light upon these circumstances so that they change, begin to make sense, become clues-clues pointing toward one final, inescapable conclusion ... can there be anything more satisfying? Ever since our species first noticed a furry print upon the forest floor, first realized its interpretation could make the difference between life and death, we have had a taste for mysteries. Once we'd discovered writing, begun to create works of fiction ... well, the next step was, as any Baker-street aficionado could tell you, elementary.

So, the next time you're in the mood for that most satisfying of reading experiences, a good mystery, think: Professor Plum, with the candlestick, in the library.