What are mysteries for?

You are what you eat, right?

But you’re also what you do.  The things you do over and over and over write themselves into your brain:  your habits reach quite deep.  And which comes first–the habit or the state of mind that goes with the habit?  It’s hard to say.  For example, I’m always fighting a tendency to bite my nails, especially when I’m stressed, mentally or emotionally.  I’m fine if they’re smooth, but if there’s a hangnail or one side that’s uneven, I suddenly find my nails in my mouth, trying to make them perfect.  It never works (teeth just aren’t made to produce perfectly smooth nails), and I have to fix my mistakes by nibbling more.

I’m a perfectionist, the worst kind: nothing is good enough.  My natural tendency is to mess around with things until they’re worn to nubbins.  I actually have enough control over myself that I can post blogs that aren’t perfect, stories that aren’t perfect, and state my imperfect opinions out loud, although I have to admit my heart does a lurch every time I do.  I also have fingernails and, for the most part, use a clipper.  However, my hands are still in and out of my mouth all day, as I go, “Nope.  Nope.  Nope.”

Why don’t I just stop chewing my nails?  Hey, why don’t I just be someone completely different while I’m at it?  It’s hard disconnecting that habit from an associated habit of mind.

All of which is a ramble to get me to the point: when you read a certain genre constantly, it indicates something.  One, that there’s something in the genre that appeals to you, and two, that you’re reprogramming your brain to be a little better at the things that brought you to the genre in the first place.  The action of reading and the mental habit are tied together.

So mysteries:  What are they for?

I recently read a thick tome of Agatha Christie/Poirot short stories, 50 of them altogether.  My usual record for her stuff is figuring out about one in ten.  These, I got about half:  the half that I got were the ones where I was alert; the half I didn’t was where I was on autopilot or starting to fall asleep.  I have been trying to figure out what on earth changed that made the stories easier to figure out.  The stories were the same; it must have been something I’d done.

Well, also recently, I went on a kick where I went totally nuts over sudoku.  Stupid nuts.  Snarling when interrupted nuts.  I don’t know what it was, but I just got sucked in.  Over and over and over, until I started to see patterns:  this must be true, this must not be true. This is suspicious. This is obvious.

I think that’s what did it: I spent so much time looking at logical patterns that the habit of mind started to carry over to other things.  I stopped asking, “Who dunnit” when I read mysteries, and started asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?  What must be true, yet appears to be not true?  What must not be true, yet is?”

Over and over, I read Hercule Poirot say that he had his methods.  What were they?  He never says what his methods are.  And yet I think I know what they are now: “Given X, what must be true?  Given Y, what must not be true?”  Where, as it were, has reality been photoshopped?  Questions of who dunnit come later, as the evidence of what’s been changed and who changed it comes to light.

I think a love for mysteries–not real-life investigators, who may or may not use the same methods; I don’t know enough to say–comes out of the desire to solve logic puzzles, and the love of mysteries contributes to the ability to solve logic puzzles.  More practically, I think that love of mysteries goes along with people with a talent for seeing past BS, with qualities of nosiness and persnicketiness, and who feel they have the right to act on their own judgments in ethical questions.  One of the major themes in mystery stories is the ability of the detective to judge for themselves whether punishment is deserved or not–to be able to take action based on information, rather than pure impulse.  Of course, mystery readers can make asses of themselves by making unwarranted assumptions; it’s almost a trope to have a mystery reader who tries (and fails) to help solve the mystery.

But then again, maybe they haven’t read enough mysteries yet.


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  1. Liz

    I tend to read thriller, horror, and literary novels. I also have a guilty pleasure for YA, but mostly Maureen Johnson because she’s just damn good. I’m really not sure what this says about me. 😀

    PS: Congratulations on the eleven acceptances, and 156 rejections!

  2. De

    I like Maureen too, and her stuff is exactly what I don’t normally read. C’est la vie.


  3. As I read your description of mystery readers I felt like I was staring into a mirror, which is usually not such a pretty sight. This time, not so bad.

    Great post.

    • De

      Hey, thanks 🙂 Plus, looking at the world logically and analytically is a feature, not a bug.

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