October 26, 2003
It was a dark and stormy night. (Oooh.) She saw a stranger watching
from across the street. (Oooh.) Suddenly she heard the slow creak
of the front door. (Oooh...and then?)
Scare us, please. Children, whether shrieking with laughter at the
adult who says, "boo!" or huddling with nervous pleasure
around a campfire for ghost stories, can't get enough. Neither can
adults, who read enough scary stories to make mysteries one of the
most popular book categories. It seems to be instinctive: we love
being scared. But just a little. Just to the point that mystery
writer Jeremiah Healy calls "disquieting."
"We like to be scared," says Healy, "but we prefer
when it's vicarious." He compares the pleasure we take in reading
mysteries to the delicious danger we knew as children listening
to a scary story, but knowing our parents were there to protect
us. "I think people don't read mysteries to be scared as much
as to be entertained. The fear you feel toward the end of the book
is like the glass of port or the dessert at the end of a meal."
Healy is the award-winning author of 17 novels and more than 60
short stories written under his own name and under his pseudonym,
Terry Devane. His most recent book is the Terry Devane novel A Stain
Upon the Robe. A former military police officer, attorney, and law
professor, Healy writes legal and private-investigator mysteries
that are often set in Boston. As a college student working in a
sheriff's office, Healy first learned about how people function
under extreme conditions.
"I came to appreciate a level of fear I had not known before
and how you need to control it in order to function. Now I can put
my fictional victim in that mindset."
It could be argued that, these days, we live in that mindset. Why
at a time when world events seem unremittingly frightening--and
random--do we still seek out this added dose of dread? In fact,
we want something scary to read now even more. Healy says that,
in the last two years the popularity of mystery books has soared.
It's understandable. The page, the binding are solid boundaries
from which the terrors cannot escape. It's an implicit contract
between author and reader: I'm going to entertain you by scaring
you, but in a good way, a controlled way. So don't worry: on the
last page, everything will be all right.
Says Healy, "In difficult times--uncertain economic times,
times of war, both of which we have now--people want an organized
story they can follow. They want a story that troubles them, but
within a certain range. And they want a resolution."
In a mystery, terror follows a comfortingly predictable course.
As Healy points out, a gunfight in the first chapter is not likely
to have serious consequences for the hero. As the book progresses,
the mayhem quotient will increase.
"It's like a roller-coaster," he says, "where the
biggest drop is at the end. If the biggest drop came at the beginning,
you wouldn't think much of the ride by the time you got off. The
action is in control, but escalating."
The type of action readers look for may depend on the lives they
lead. Healy's type of mystery often attracts an audience of professionals
comfortable with complexity and drawn to more cerebral tensions.
Those who feel their work lives are more routine and lacking in
excitement may seek out the heightened stimulation of graphic slasher
But whatever our preferences in style, mysteries cut across all
lines, socioeconomic, ethnic, gender, and age. As readers, we think
a scary trick is a treat to be savored.
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at email@example.com.