I recently watched the 2001 film, The Chronicles of Vidocq with Gerard Depardieu. The movie is based on the life of Eugène François Vidocq, a French criminal who later became the founder and first director of the crime-detection Sûreté Nationale and reportedly head of the first private detective agency. The villain in this movie wears a mask that is mirror like and reflects back to those who look upon him.
As I think about why I am drawn to reading and writing in the mystery genre that metaphor seems appropriate. I like to read and write about the darker aspects within us all, including myself, because it’s a way of at least taming, if not completely understanding, the violence we face every day in newspaper accounts, websites and television programs that purport to tell us about the real experiences of our society, and sometimes the violence we face in our own lives.
In my more virtuous moments I wonder if such fascination with mystery fiction only adds to the nearly overwhelming problems of an already violent society. I once heard a writer exhort her audience to eschew the culture of violence and turn to the spirit of creativity that exists within each of us instead.
But I think the answer is not so simple. Aristotle believed that literature is cathartic, a purging of emotion. Creating or reading within mystery genre provides plenty of opportunities to purge darker emotions, but it also provides opportunities to study character, the whys and wherefores of actions and what drives us to do the things we do. Some people read mysteries because they deliver a juster view of the world; the villain usually gets caught and punished. Others read them for the ambience created by the author, a window into a world one would not otherwise be exposed to. I read them for these reasons, but also because the good ones contain grains of truth about character and the human condition. We all face times when the choices we make determine in a big way the course of the rest of our lives. Good fiction, especially mysteries, should capture and clarify some of those times.
Linda Thornburg’s short story “Used” appears in Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II. She has been a writer for more than thirty years and currently manages the website memoriesintostory.com. She is the coauthor of a series of fourteen books on career exploration for teenage girls, Cool Careers for Girls.