It’s an odd way to make a living when you think about it. We write about things that would terrify and dismay people if they were real. Murder. Serial killers. Violence. And we do all this to entertain people.
I think about this issue whenever a news show covers an intimate tragedy like the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba or Madeleine McCann in Portugal. Cable news shows play on our love of mystery and drama to boost ratings. The difference is that, unlike a novel, the crime is real. Our news programs treat these dramas as whodunits, to an extent that we often cheapen or even forget the actual tragedy.
The question is: Are those of us who write mysteries any different? We invent our stories, but we strive to make the fear, crime, and drama real for the reader. The best writers make us gasp and cry, afraid to turn the page, but unable to put the book down. My only explanation is that mysteries make us confront difficult moral choices and decide for ourselves. Mysteries also give us something that the real world often cannot. Order. Resolution. Truth. The frustration in watching the news is in not knowing what really happened. In mysteries, in the end, we usually do.
That may explain it, but I’m not sure it gives us moral cover. Would there be a fictional Hannibal Lector without the real-life Zodiac killer? I’m not so sure. Those of us who make our living writing about murders perhaps owe more of a debt of gratitude to the people who commit them than we are comfortable admitting.