Why do we love a good murder mystery?
- Credit: BBC/The Fall 3 Ltd/Des Willie
We all love a good mystery, but why? With the return of The Fall to BBC2 and psychological thriller Night Must Fall heading this way, entertainment writer Wayne Savage investigates.
There’s a line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, later repeated in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory of all places, which sums up our fascination with murder mysteries perfectly - “the suspense is terrible, I hope it will last”.
It’s the disruption of the ordinary with something extraordinary, a temporary window into a life less ordinary with the turn of a page or click of your remote. While escapism rates high when it comes to our love for the macrabre, like every good story it’s never that simple.
Gill Lowe, senior lecturer and course leader for the BA (Hons) English course at the University of Suffolk put the same question to her second year short story class. Her first surprise was that it was mostly women who loved the genre.
“There’s been work done and apparently 70% of thriller readers are women which I thought was quite interesting. That could be because more women read than men. There’s also a big increase in women who write crime thrillers.”
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Our interest in the darker side of human nature was another draw, she adds.
“You could say people are interested in the violation of what we think of as acceptable human behaviour, that walk on the wild side, watching something and trying to make sense of it. There’s also the intense emotional experience of aligning with somebody and wanting somebody to get revenge or have justice.”
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Dr Krissy Wilson, senior lecturer of psychology, sociology and social work at the university feels we love the struggle between good and evil, something ingrained in us from an early age.
“We like a conclusion, we like people being caught; that pattern, that closure. We all want to believe there’s a divine punishment for people who do wrong, we all want to buy into that idea; that people do get their comeuppance eventually.”
Another popular conclusion was the way thrillers get the adrenaline pumping. There’s pleasure in fear, especially when it’s vicarious. While the soon to be chalk outline flees for their life, you’re sitting on your sofa with a nice cup of tea.
“It’s made up fear, fabricated, controlled; you know you’re watching fiction even if your body does respond to it with adrenaline,” says Gill. “I suppose it’s the old fashion purging, Aristotle’s idea of catharsises that when we’re watching something like this we’re releasing something vicariously rather than actually.”
The intellectual challenge of piecing the clues together was a common theme. One of her students has a standing bet with her husband at the start of a series about who did it.
Garfield Hunt, a lecturer in social work who includes psychology as part of his programme at the university and is a self-confessed sucker for crime fiction, says psychologically we all want to play detective. On the other hand we’re fascinated by the macabre question of “if I were to commit a crime how could I get away with it”?
“Take the Ipswich murders from nearly 10 years ago. There was barely anybody who didn’t try to psychoanalyse the person - ‘oh I reckon he’s this, he’s that, he’s got this...I reckon, I reckon, I reckon’ - we can’t help it.”
Part of that he thinks comes from what we read and watch on TV. Programmes like CSI and the surge of real-life crime shows have made us better detectives, we can now watch something and start to unpick the crime scene in a detailed way.
“Within that there’s an element of satisfaction.”
He sympathises with Gill’s student, disappointed even when she unmasks the ne’er-do-well. If the twist’s pulled off right, the higher the satisfaction when you nail it though.
“It’s the good plot, the unexpected outcome that really gets you. You know there’s going to be a twist but you’re still saying it’s X and it always ends up as Y and that’s what gets you going into another book. Next time I’m going to get it right; this writer, this director isn’t going to be able to outwit me...” laughs Garfield, who has a pile of books by his bed.
“As I get to the last one I get a bit edgy, ‘what am I going to do after I finish that one’. I have to go back on Amazon and replace them to make sure I know I’m not going to run out.”
Krissy, not a fan of the genre although she does watch Miss Marple, has a more sobering idea why we love murder mysteries.
“We’re all going to die; that’s the one absolute in life... What we don’t know is the time, the day and how. We’re horrified by death but I think we’re equally fascinated by it, in particular violent death, because it’s a coping mechanism.
“If you have a phobia about something the best way to get over it is to face it... Scared by spiders, you hold a spider.”
Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, soon to be at the New Wolsey starring Daragh O’Malley and Niamh McGrady, is another thriller that taps into our need to flirt with danger.
Written in 1935, it features lonely, frustrated Olivia (Niamh), who finds herself drawn to her aunt’s charming new private assistant Dan. Inspector Belsize (Daragh) is called in when a local missing woman turns up dead.
“It’s a remarkable piece of writing which has been forgotten in the canon of British writing... He’s turned evil into an aphrodisiac where the murderer manages to seduce two women living in the wilds of Sussex countryside in sexual isolation,” says Daragh. “There’s certainly an appetite for murder mysteries. We’ve just come from Eastbourne, my God how conservative is it there? But they came and they lapped it up.”
Niamh, who says she prefers musicals and Disney films, will be familiar to many as Pc Danielle Ferrington in The Fall, which has just returned to BBC2 on Thursdays.
She says people ultimately love a good story.
“What you have with crime thrillers is you’re always kept dangling. There’s always suspense and people love the thrill of trying to figure things out.
“This is an excellent thriller, it’s not what I’d call a traditional thriller, its not a whodunit. The audience are laughing one moment and they’re terrified out of their wits the next.
“There does seem a huge appetite for crime thrillers, especially on TV, where they’ve never done so well. It’s always great fun filming something challenging; the fact the subject is pretty dark doesn’t mean it’s any less fun.”
While widely popular, writer Allan Cubitt has been criticised for The Fall’s depiction of violence against women. It was once described as “an invitation to share an extended rape fantasy”.
He told Radio Times: “I do feel hurt. I was very upset by the implications...because whose fantasy would it be but mine? Being accused of misogyny when you’re not a misogynistic person, and indeed your entire raison d’etre is the reverse of that, feels like an artistic failure.”
But he understood he had no way of controlling the response to his work, saying: “People will bring what they will bring to bear.”
The way women were portrayed in crime thrillers cropped up during Gill’s chat with her students.
“One said she was quite disturbed by the sexualised images of women being abused in things like The Fall – red lipstick, legs splayed on beds...How you don’t get images of men sexualised in the same way when they’re killed.”
“Something like The Fall is a very glamorous depiction of violent crime. She is very glamorous, he is very handsome; so you feel a certain amount of not empathy exactly, but you want to like these characters even though it’s...pretty horrific.”
Niamh is full of praise for The Fall’s cast and crew.
“We’re very proud of the show for lots of reasons. As a Northern Irish actress I’m very proud something homegrown has achieved such an international audience. They (Anderson and Dornan) are absolutely lovely, they both take the job very seriously and they’re great to work with.”
Night Must Fall runs October 17-22 at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre.