Crime fiction is firmly entrenched in our culture and in our hearts. We can’t get enough of the nail-biting and heart palpitations, the challenge of the hunt for a killer, the thrill of late nights trying to work out the solution before the cops do. Pleasure doesn’t demand analysis, but being inquisitive often results in needless deliberation, so I couldn’t help but ask myself why; what is it about a good mystery we love so much?
At first, the answer seemed obvious: who doesn’t want to decipher a puzzle? Whether you’re reading a mystery novel, doing the Sunday crossword, or trying to figure out why your dog or cat is eating grass, you are responding to a biological imperative to solve problems. It’s a genetically hard-wired skill that has kept our species successful and thriving for a couple hundred thousand years. The Pleistocene forests and plains were filled with intrepid investigators who deduced that spears and knives would come in handy for hunting, and they solved the mystery of Uncle Urg’s sudden death after eating a pretty mushroom he’d foraged.
But thinking further on the question, I looked at the genre more closely as it relates to human nature and realized there is another important component responsible for the enduring popularity of mysteries: secrets. Large or small, everybody has them, and our inherent voyeurism yearns to read about somebody else’s. As a writer, I think it’s intuitive to incorporate them into your work.
This explained to me why secrets have always been a set piece in the Monkeewrench series, not just within the plot, but within the characters themselves. The eponymous crew of computer geniuses has very dark pasts, an abundance of secrets, and with each book, another one or two is revealed, providing a depth of opportunity to explore not just a plot, but the human psyche and its evolution.
This is a big part of how the Monkeewrench gang became who they are – at the point of their conception, the only prerequisite was developing a set of characters you’d want to meet at a cocktail party. And who do you want to meet at a party? The people who pique your curiosity because you can’t quite figure them out; people who are a mystery you want to solve because you can’t help it.
Did all my silly mental gymnastics result in any significant conclusion? Not really, but I am now more certain than ever that mysteries won’t be going out of style any time soon.