Friday, October 26, 2012

Why Do We Read Mayhem and Murder? by Marcia Applegate

copyright 2012, Marcia Applegate

A while ago, after having spent much too much time looking for a particular Ruth Rendell mystery among books scattered on the living room bookshelves, I decided to organize them by category–mysteries, classics, mainstream, humor, instructional, religion and of course miscellaneous. When I finished with those bookcases (I hadn’t yet done those in my study or the ones piled on tables and the floor), I was struck by the number of mysteries.

Intrigued, I went to my Nook e-reader library. There again, and not surprisingly, the mystery category was no small part of the books stored there. Wow, I thought, I spend quite a bit of my reading time with–chuckle, chuckle–blood and gore and murder and mayhem.

Which led to the question I’ve used as the title of this essay: Why do we read mayhem and murder? The obvious answer is: “It’s life. There have been murder and mayhem since earliest times. Look in the Bible. Read a history book or today’s newspaper. Read about wars, rebellions, uprisings.”

True, certainly. World history includes brutality in everyday life in every society, horrific legal punishments,  cruelty to children and animals, all part of every culture’s history. My question, though, is really “Why do we–members of a supposedly advanced and civilized society–enjoy reading and watching TV, video and DVD about blood and gore and horror and evil doings and doers? Aside from the real stuff that goes on in our world that we can read in the daily papers. I’m talking about fiction, although true crime is a big seller, too.

I tried to find the number of mystery books in all genres that were published in a given time span, maybe a year or two. No luck, though. Mysteries are generally lumped into the mainstream category, so I have no statistics to share.  I guess I’m a good example, though. There are 34 individual mystery writers on my shelves and those are only a tiny fraction of the total number of writers writing mysteries. Almost all of the 34 writers have more than one book on my shelves, some have many, and there are also plenty of mystery anthologies.

Certainly the attraction of people to crime and evil is a complex issue. A psychologist would have some answers. Students of the history of crime might have others, different ones. A cop would indeed have theories,  likely with a touch of cynicism. All of these individuals probably have substantial expertise on which to base an opinion.

But I, as a devoted reader of mystery fiction, am taking the liberty to declare myself an expert in my own reading, and therefore have an opinion to share with you. Note that I am not going for depth in my reasoning; what follows is what occurred to me after an afternoon of dusting and rearranging shelves of books. A good time for self-analysis.

My first reaction was to chuckle at the whole idea. I read genre fiction for escape, for relaxation. I’m escaping from the real world, where I live my life, where the news of the day is filled with awful stuff, at home and abroad, wars and rumors of wars–to get biblical.

My thinking goes like this: In past centuries, crime, evil, murder and mayhem were a normal part of everyday life for the average person. They didn’t need to read the paper, assuming they were literate. Today, even though we know perfectly well it’s not true, most of us live orderly lives, where evil and crime seem distant, apart from our own lives. We believe, we know–all evidence to the contrary–that crime won’t touch us or those close to us. How many times have we heard someone say, when their neighbor turns out to be a serial killer, “This is a safe neighborhood. He (or she) was so quiet, who’d ever suspect?”

So we feel safe, relatively. The kinds of excitements our ancestors experienced through the brutality of daily life is not part of ours. It’s safe for us to imagine evil, since we don’t expect it to confront us personally. We can be spies, murderers, robbers, jewel thieves, kidnappers, child abusers, dirty cops, any kind  of miscreant we choose, because it’s not real. Or we can solve crimes, wreak vengeance, dispense justice, be the good cop, lawyer or judge; it’s just in our imaginations.

All these can be enticing intellectual exercises, challenges to our wits and senses. We can get lost in a convoluted and scary plot by an inventive writer because it’s fun to be scared that way, when it’s not real. The scare goes away when we finish reading and we’re left with the enjoyment of a well-written story that took us out of our daily lives for a while. It gave us a peek at another way of life, one we wouldn’t dare try for real. A world we’re glad not to live in.

So. You most likely wouldn’t be reading this blog if you weren’t a mystery reader. Stop for a moment and think why you enjoy a good mystery, among all the other kinds of reading you do. Then use the comment space to share your thoughts.

I’d love to hear from you, find out what you think about the reasons so many millions of us, of different ages and places in life, with different backgrounds and different hopes for the future, why we have in common a love of reading, and in this case, of reading about murder and mayhem. 

Marcia Applegate blogs as  and tweets as!/meladolce

She is a retired communications/media consultant and columnist. For fun, she enjoys reading (and writing) mysteries and studying Italian. She also loves music, her husband and family, her two cats, eBooks, blogging, and her brand-new IPad! Visit her blogs at and

1 comment:

Kim Smith said...

Marcia, I have to say that many times aspiring authors will ask, "how do I know what my voice is"? and I always answer, look on your keeper shelf. What do you read the most? the general agreement is what you love to read, you will be best at writing... not always of course, but in general.

Thanks for this great post!