From as early as the Charles Dickens of the 19th Century to the modern day Jeffrey Archer, mystery writers are swimming well in the mainstream.
Today these writers can choose any direction they please because the market is increasing. No matter which era you find yourself in it is clearly evident that people love the roller coaster thrill of mysteries. It is a safe adventure that allows them to visit exotic or interesting places. They get to experience the dark side of some characters but they take comfort in knowing that justice prevails in the end. The Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephen King and Jodi Picoult (my favourite mystery authors) allow us to relate to their characters. Through their expertly woven words, the reader is given a platform to play amateur detective and be part of the solution. Cool hey? This puts them on the winning team that captures the bad guys and helps to right the wrongs. Now who doesn’t want to be part of that team?
As a new author from sunny South Africa, I penned my debut novel DEADLINE to tell the story of a young reporter who follows the trail of a serial killer. Now this was very exciting because the research and material were readily available. There was a real-life serial killer on the loose during the late 1990s. He was dubbed The Phoenix Serial Killer. With the help of a forensics expert, he was eventually apprehended, tried in court and sentenced. Growing up I recall having an investigative personality and I guess that followed through into my adult years. So when the time came to write that story it was all right before me. All I had to do was create an element of thrilling encounters, fear factors moments and voila it all came together beautifully. You see South Africa is producing enough crime fiction – the country has a developed publishing structure and sufficient real-life material to draw from. From the armed gangs who hijack property to police authorities implicated in a murder, there is potential for mysteries.
Take for example the South African missing girls saga in the late 1980s where suspect Gert van Rooyen was linked to the disappearance of five young girls. He was accused of molesting and murdering his victims. Their remains were never found and Gert committed suicide. Case closed. Now this story has all the trimmings of mystery. The ‘whodunnit’ and ‘howdunnit’ elements are rich for the picking. Pieces of this story are like a big puzzle piece and in a mystery death is explained through reasoning.
While early mysteries allowed readers to escape into brilliant prose and fascinating stories, modern mysteries have evolved and become so much more. Today we find ourselves instantly involved in characters’ lives – what were they feeling, being there with them, seeing through their eyes and experiencing their emotional journey. Paralympian Oscar Pistorius who was recently sentenced for the murder of his girlfriend has mystery potential. His status had people glued to the media – everyone wanted to know why and how. Some sympathised with his family and others loathed them. Books were written and these sold like hot cakes. There are other cases from South Africa like the Bubbles Schroeder murder in 1949, the Helderberg plane crash in 1987 where 160 passengers and crew lost their lives at sea, the Robert Smith murder in 1977, the missing Kruger Millions and the plane crash of Mozambican President Samora Machel. Where did it all go wrong and why? What if it happened like this? These are just some of the scenarios that paint a picture for riveting mysteries.
While we must thank our predecessors we must also be grateful for modern mysteries. Let’s face it, mysteries have changed over the years. It is an escape from reality, a platform that allows readers to become part of a fictional world that captivates the imagination. Whichever way you look at it, mysteries are puzzle solvers. Readers are given clues to piece together and encouraged to be smarter than Hercule Poirot. But mysteries are something else too – it helps readers to cope with the psychological and emotional concept of crimes and our own mortality. In real life, you can never escape death but in a mystery, it makes perfect sense. Well, it does by the time the detective solves the crime and brings the killer to book. And when that is done then one can differentiate between truth and the smokescreens the antagonist created.
Mystery writers have clearly carved a niche for themselves – they prefer not be placed in a box and do extraordinary things with their investigative prowess. Mary Higgins Clark is widely read by all types of people. Remarkable novels are crafted by Ruth Rendell and then there are others that make you laugh like Charlotte MacLeod and Dorothy Gilman. Mysteries will never lose its magic because the readership is always growing.
Thanks to MTW participating author Zaheera Walker for contributing such a great look at mysteries and their histories. Zaheera is the author of her own mystery thriller Deadline, which is available on Amazon.