‘Why I believe murder mysteries are good for you’

Sherlock, stock and barrel: but what does Conan Doyle make you think about?

Is being fascinated by grisly murders and underworld whodunnits ghoulish and unhealthy? Or might these ever-popular stories make us ponder the great questions of life and death?

A priest I knew was murdered last year, stabbed to death. The police interviewed me as part of their investigation. When a suspect was finally charged, it emerged in court that he had intended to crucify a priest rather than stab him – but he had left his nails at home.

The story shocked me and many others. But what made it particularly poignant was that I had just finished writing my first murder mystery novel. The title? A Vicar, Crucified. It certainly made me think again about the genre. My first agent had told me: ‘If you can’t think of anything else, write a murder mystery – people always buy those.’ And he was right; TV detectives are everywhere. But is this demand for murder healthy?

It’s nothing new of course. Writing about Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, Professor Clarke Hulse counts ‘14 killings, nine of them on stage, six severed members, one rape (or two or three, depending on how you count), one live burial, one case of insanity and one of cannibalism – an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines’.

And Thomas Hardy never forgot the hanging of Martha Brown which he witnessed in 1856 when he was 16. He based his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles on her story and was still writing about it in his eighties: ‘What a fine figure she showed against the sky,’ he wrote, 70 years after the event, ‘as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.’

Charles Dickens also witnessed public hangings, and though he campaigned against them, he spoke of the ‘fascination of the repulsive, something most of us have experienced.’

But can murder be more than ghoulish entertainment? I believe it can, for in the hands of the best writers, the murder mystery helps us better understand ourselves. It’s interesting, for instance, how often Sherlock Holmes makes his own decision about the guilt of the criminal. He doesn’t always hand them over to the police. Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, was asking us to consider not only what people do but why they do it.

And the great thriller writer Raymond Chandler didn’t just describe murder; he painted a portrait of 1950s America. The US may have adored itself in the ’50s, but Chandler didn’t share this belief. Instead, he described ‘the darkness, degeneracy, depravity and sheer nastiness’ that accompanied economic growth after the great depression of the 1930s. And in the middle of the mayhem, there is the detective, brave but fallible, trying to bring order to a disordered world. Now there’s a hero.

It is odd. Crime writers describe the cruel art of killing with shocking realism. There’s a pretty nasty murder in my latest book.* Yet parents are glad to see their children reading these mystery stories. Why? Because crime fiction is a medium which transcends itself, and deals with the biggest two questions we face: what is life and what is death?

*A Psychiatrist, Screams by Simon Parke is published by Darton, Longman and Todd in October 2013, price £7.99.

You Decide

  1. Is it unhealthy to enjoy murder stories?

Activities

  1. Write the first few paragraphs of a crime thriller: can you grab the reader’s attention?

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