Stuff of Mystery

Appearances are Deceiving

I had a great time at the Mystery Writers of America’s monthly meeting Saturday morning. Our guest speaker was a psychotherapist who shared information on personality disorders in order to help us develop more accurate, rounded, and dynamic villains. After the presentation we ate and visited. Hanging out with a group of writers is always entertaining—everyone has a story.

As a mystery writer, I spend a lot of my time reading and watching whodunits, and thinking of plausible scenarios to write about. I also realize that if one watches prime-time TV regularly, and pays any attention to the news, it would appear that there is a rapist, child abuser, burglar, arsonist, or serial killer behind every tree. However the fact is, as most people know (and every mystery writer relies on), appearances are deceiving.

According to the FBI website, most serial killers are not dysfunctional loners, but rather they live normal lives, hold down jobs, and have families. Most people assume serial killers suffer mental illness, but that is rarely the case, although they often have personality disorders stemming from childhood abuse or neglect. The media is giving unprecedented coverage of violent crimes and warnings due to the high level of unemployment and economic uncertainty; however, serial killers are responsible for less than 1% of all murders, violent crimes actually dropped by 4% nationwide, forcible rape is down 9%, robbery is down 7%, aggravated assault is down 6%, arson is down 5%, and motor vehicle theft is down 3%.

Considering that data I find myself wondering about the inverse proportion of actual real life crime to the increase of media coverage and fictional crime. Could it be that shows like CSI or Criminal Minds are serving as a deterrent? Or, is the 24/7 coverage providing a cathartic release for would-be criminals? Or, are more people aware of the warning signs and getting professional help for potential criminals at an early age? Or, has the law enforcement and legal system been more efficient and successful than the media reports?

I also wonder why normal, happy, well-adjusted people are so intrigued by crime and criminals. The best-sellers list is always dominated by mystery books, the top TV shows are mystery genre, and crime is a proven draw for all news outlets. Do we as a society crave the drama and unknown of a mystery to interrupt our routine lives? Is it a mental challenge, like Sudoku, to recognize the clues and solve the puzzle?

What do you think? Do you read, watch, or write mysteries? Why or why not? And, do you think this national obsession with crime helps or hurts us? I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

1 thought on “Appearances are Deceiving”

  1. I liked the questions you posed, Kathryn. Mysteries are indeed my reading of choice, as well as my viewing preference.

    Novelist and critic David Lodge wrote: “A solved mystery is ultimately reassuring to readers, asserting the triumph of reason over instinct, of order over anarchy…”

    Author Melissa Bourbon Ramirez says mysteries “are a safe thrill… In a mystery, death is explained through reasoning. A truth is discovered. For just a while, death, the one thing we cannot escape and can never understand, makes sense and we can accept it.”

    As you pointed out, mysteries are a break from the routine. I believe avid mystery lovers crave the challenge mysteries pose, desire the adrenaline rush they provide, thrill at the momentary jolt from the mundane we take with us. Who of us wouldn’t like to be Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Alex Cross? Or think of ourselves as Nancy Drew, Maddie Hayes or Miss Marple?

    Do crime shows help or hurt? As much as I enjoy them and am against censorship, I guess I fall on the side of the latter. I worry the narcissistic antisocial personality watches the BIO channel and wants the fame those true crime shows provide; perhaps comes away thinking he/she is smarter after watching shows like CSI and Criminal Minds. At the same time, those shows and ones like them remind us that bad things do happen to good people, and we have a responsibility to be aware of our surroundings.

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