Historical Division: How I learned to love reading mysteries  by Sally Allen

The first mysteries I fell in love with were Agatha Christie’s novels. I was in middle school and had recently been upgraded to my brother’s old room. Among the items he had left behind were a substantial collection of worn paperbacks. I spent hours lying on the plush navy carpet devouring The A.B.C. Murders, And Then There Were None, and Murder on the Orient Express, among others.

I loved many things about reading these books. Front and center was the challenge of piecing the clues together to solve the murder. It made me feel terribly productive and resourceful. Plus, it was absorbing to be occupied in the formidable task of unraveling Christie’s plots, providing a welcome distraction from whatever middle school drama was playing out at school. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the books were also expanding my reading palate. They ushered me into adult fiction, where characters could be hiding shady secrets and motivations. Reading Agatha Christie showed me that I could handle mature storylines, where not every character got his or her happy ending. They showed me that I could follow a layered plot and unearth embedded clues. They introduced me to the pleasure of literary detective work—reading not only to identify with characters and to escape into fictional worlds but also to study how a narrative is put together and challenge myself to predict where it will go.

As much as any books I read as a child, reading Agatha Christie showed me that reading isn’t just fun and diverting. It’s engaged, creative work. I had to be alert and focused to *beat* the criminal and *solve* the crime. That early training as an active reader served me well when I went on to study literature in college and graduate school. It made me a more attentive reader, including about assessing genre. Because thriller/mystery is a genre of its own, but genres also cross-pollinate. 

I love literary fiction for its fresh, soaring language, ambiguity, and deep character development. These are also why I love John Le Carre’s novels. His The Spy Who Came in from the Cold left me breathless from the tension and suspense of the plot. It’s also a complex, nuanced portrait of the spy life, where moral dilemmas abound, and good and bad defy easy categorization. 

Loving travel as I do, I’m drawn to novels that have a strong sense of place. I love to explore community life that’s worlds away from my own, and one of my favorites to (re)visit happens to be in a murder mystery series: M. C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels set in the Scottish Highlands. Beaton has written upwards of 30. I’m about halfway through the series and have yet to read one that hasn’t enchanted me with its rich descriptions of the natural landscape, the relationships among the residents of Macbeth’s village, and their individual quirks and foibles. 

Have I mentioned how much I love to laugh? It’s my favorite cathartic activity, and I enjoyed quite a bit of it reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries. They also feature vibrant writing that keeps you guessing not only about how the long-term plot will unfold but also in the moment, through surprising turns of phrase and descriptions that trick you. And the characters! I fell so in love with them that I want to follow them from book to book, torn between reading the series in one giant gulp or savoring it to stretch out the pleasure.

All this is to say, mystery/thriller is a genre that folds in other genres, like origami but with words. “If you don’t like to read,” J. K. Rowling is credited with saying, “you haven’t found the right book.” When I hear this, I find myself amending it to “if you don’t like to read mysteries.” Because in my experience, the old saying, “there’s something for everyone” holds truer than I could ever have imagined back when I was solving crimes with Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.


Award-winning writer and teacher Sally Allen holds a PhD from New York University. She teaches writing and communications at Post University and is the editor of Books, Ink, a website dedicated to books news in Connecticut. Her book Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers includes a chapter on her favorite mysteries and thrillers.
Her book is in the Book Cellar and available on Amazon 
Visit her website sallyallenbooks.com

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