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Arthur Conan Doyle
(The scientific minds of Holmes and Watson are tested by howls on the moor, the legend of a fiery hell-hound, and a giant pawprint next to a dead nobleman.)
A novel-length Sherlock Holmes mystery! The readers of the Strand Magazine must have been delighted. They must have vigorously discussed with each other the prospects of the case between installments. Releasing a detective story by degrees has got to be risky, since the readers have so much time to figure everything out. There are enough threads interwoven in this story, though, and enough minor details that must be incorporated into a solution, that I suspect almost everyone will be surprised at something in the denouement. Besides, we would need a healthy dose of luck to solve the riddle ourselves, for there are crucial elements about which we can only guess during the narration. These are revealed to us only after Holmes has discovered them and solved the case in his mind. In this way, Doyle all but ensures that competition with the sleuth is beyond our grasp.
Although the most haunting aspect of the typical Sherlock Holmes case is nothing more than the dense fog of pipe smoke around the detective’s chair, Doyle did have an interest in spiritualism, and wrote a few books on the subject. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he combines these two interests by infusing the tale with a strong atmosphere of macabre otherworldliness. Probably more than the facts of the case or its solution, the damp darkness and chilling moans of the moor are likely to remain with us long after we have finished reading the book.
Dorothy L. Sayers
(A financier goes missing and a lookalike is found dead in a bathtub. The easygoing Lord Peter Wimsey searches for the connection.)
Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1970s BBC miniseries (www.popmatters.com)
As troubling as murder is in our society, more of them happen on bookstore shelves than anywhere else, and millions of apparently peaceful people pay plenty of money to read about them, as if it were a pity that they don’t happen more often. I have casually wondered why. Probably it is an example of entertainment by extremity: if conflict is the heart of any good story, surely lots of people will go for people killing each other, since you can’t get more conflictual than that. This doesn’t really answer the question, though—it just passes the buck from fascination with murder to fascination with conflict in general. But of course we humans are inherently scenario-building, personality-scrutinizing, lie-detecting social beings. Human success has always depended on figuring other people out. The fact that one of the characters in such stories is likely to be the murderer is probably a large part of the draw. Trying to solve a murder mystery flexes the same mental muscles that we use for everyday social problem-solving and monitoring. And a murder is, again, more likely to catch our attention than any other breach of social mores. The authors make the stakes so high to ensure our attention. Not everyone goes in for these books, of course, which is simply because our society provides us with a variety of different ways to address basic human concerns. Take an EEG of a video gamer, sports follower, or romance reader at their respective hobbies. I suspect they are scratching the same itches in different ways.