Mystery and suspense fiction: More than just a good story

Mystery, crime, and suspense fiction is one of my favorite categories of escapist reading. After a long day, it’s nice to lose myself in a story that — however briefly — draws me into a web of drama and intrigue.

However, on occasion I feel a tinge of guilt over my affinity for mysteries. After all, they have never been regarded as high fiction. Shouldn’t I be reading more serious works with my precious spare time?

John Ohliger on mysteries

Thank goodness (for me, at least) that John Ohliger came to the defense of this much maligned genre. In a 1993 bibliographical essay titled Mystery, Crime, and Adult Education, John took on the notion that mysteries, suspense novels, and crime fiction were mindless tripe: “Reading or watching the right stuff, you’ll learn a lot about the world and about adult education.”

John noted that mysteries cover different historical eras; engage religious, political, and legal issues; and even portray educational settings. His annotated bibliography included dozens of recommendations of quality mysteries.

Caleb Carr’s The Alienist

I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (1994). Set in 1896 New York, and narrated by a New York Times reporter named John Moore, the story tracks the search for a brutal serial killer. The Holmesian mastermind is one Laszlo Kreizler, an “alienist” or psychiatrist, who applies his insights to crime detection. The story blends fictional and historical characters, the most notable of the latter being then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.

I first read The Alienist when it was originally published, and I’m finding it just as fun and even more compelling on second reading today. It evokes a world of old New York as vivid as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian London. The story interweaves compelling characters, serious social issues, emerging insights into abnormal psychology, and a dramatic tale.

Good stories — mysteries included — teach us something while providing an entertaining respite from our everyday lives. Like any type of fiction, there’s a lot of junk in the mystery section of your favorite library or bookstore. But dig in there and find the good stuff. You’ll be glad that you did.

-David Yamada

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