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Why do we love murder mysteries?

Why do we love murder mysteries?

Cosy crime writer Tom Hindle delves into why we love murder mysteries, from Agatha Christie's classics to newer offerings like Glass Onion

Let me start with a confession: I didn’t grow up reading Agatha Christie.

That probably sounds odd, given how often she comes up in conversation about my own novels. And it has to be said, I’m well aware that for my work to be compared with the Queen of Crime’s is perhaps the ultimate compliment. But I’m not an author whose childhood was spent devouring stacks upon stacks of Christie mysteries.

Agatha Christie murder mysteries

That isn’t to say I didn’t know of her. She’s a national treasure, after all. You could invite someone who’s never touched one of her novels to a Christie-themed party, and they would immediately know that they were in for a body in the library, a fiendish plot and a colourful cast of curious suspects. 

But the truth is that I didn’t properly read Agatha Christie until, at 24, I’d decided to write my own murder mystery. It occurred to me that I should analyse some of her work, and that was my time to get stuck in. 

"I didn’t properly read Agatha Christie until, at 24, I’d decided to write my own murder mystery"

For what it’s worth, I’ve actually very much enjoyed “discovering” Christie as an adult. I’m currently listening to Murder in the Vicarage, wonderfully read by Richard E. Grant. And when I’m occasionally asked which stories influenced my latest book, The Murder Game, my first answer is always And Then There Were None.

What’s interesting, though, is that I’ve chatted with other authors who have been likened to Christie and a fair few have told me exactly the same thing; that they hadn’t actually read many of her novels until later on. 

Unravelling the resurgence of murder mysteries

When I’ve sometimes asked why, more than a hundred years since Christie published her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we’re seeing a marked resurgence in stories that she has so clearly inspired, I find it’s a slightly tricky question to answer.

Here, however, is what I’ve concluded, based solely on my own experience. We talk about why the traditional whodunit is making a return. I don’t think it ever went away. I think, much like a particularly devious clue, it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. 

"We talk about why the traditional whodunit is making a return. I don’t think it ever went away"

When I was a kid, my favourite cartoon was Scooby-Doo. And when I was a teenager, my favourite books, much like every other teenager at the time, were those in the Harry Potter series. 

These might not be stories about murder. Scoob and the gang would be trying to unmask the ghost scaring folks away from a hidden goldmine. In the Potter books, the mystery was that of who had opened the Chamber of Secrets or snuck Harry’s name into the goblet of fire. But in their own right they were perfectly formed whodunits. There would always be suspects to interrogate, clues to gather and an ingenious reveal at the end.

And while it’s probably fair to say that the investigations in Scooby-Doo never quite posed the same intellectual challenge as those tackled by Poirot, in my mind there is no doubt whatsoever that these stories wouldn’t exist without Agatha Christie.

"There is no doubt whatsoever that these stories wouldn’t exist without Agatha Christie"

I could give you a dozen similar examples. I remember Sunday afternoons spent watching Midsomer Murders on ITV. My favourite board game, even, has always been Cluedo.

But I think to ask why whodunits are back is to go after a red herring. The real question is why they’ve broken cover. Why, now, is The Thursday Murder Club reigning supreme over the charts? Why are audiences clamouring for a third Benoit Blanc mystery? Why are stories that are so unabashedly—so proudly—murder mysteries now proving so popular?

Again, all I have to go on is my own experience. But I do think there might be some answers to be found in my own journey.

Revisiting old favourites

I can remember the exact moment I decided to write my first novel, A Fatal Crossing. It had begun life several years earlier as a play I never finished; not a whodunit, but a comedy caper about a stolen painting. It wasn’t until I read Anthony Horowitz’s phenomenal Magpie Murders that I was inspired to try writing a whodunit instead. And it wasn’t until setting out on that particular endeavour that I realised Scoob and Harry Potter had been preparing me for this all along. That this wasn’t a genre into which I was tentatively stepping, but in which I had been covertly steeped for much of my life.

We’re seeing this in cinema, too. How many are now trying to repeat the success of Knives Out? To become the new Rian Johnson, who is himself a Christie superfan

This, I think, might help to answer why murder mysteries have come to the fore. Supremely talented writers who did grow up reading Christie are choosing now as their moment to share their love of those classic detective stories. And in turn, they are inspiring a whole new generation of murder mystery writers; not only to pen their own, but to look back and discover the source of this most treasured genre.

I’d love to know how many writers had a similar journey to mine. How many, perhaps without even realising, grew up immersed in the storytelling techniques Christie immortalised, and are being inspired today to tread their own path by the likes of Johnson and Horowitz. Because whatever else might have helped to bring about the reappearance of traditional sleuthing, there’s no doubt in mind that its constant—often invisible—presence has played a significant role.

The Murder Game by Tom Hindle

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