In defense of mysteries and thrillers

There are many people who turn up their collective noses at mysteries and thrillers. With an eye roll, “genre” fiction is collectively dismissed as crap, garbage, or junk. Plot is, evidently, a four-letter word. Its popularity is evidence of its low stature, playing to our most base enjoyments.

While I will be the first to admit that there are some mysteries or thrillers that are bad, it is amazing to me that we allow an entire category of books to be dismissed. In doing so, we dismiss the power that mysteries and thrillers have to address larger issues in society and stir conversation.

Wasn’t Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations a genre work of fiction serialized in a newspaper? What about Huckleberry Finn? What about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?  

The popularity of mysteries and thrillers---particularly legal thrillers---is not evidence of their inferiority. Rather, the popularity of mysteries and thrillers are evidence of their power to influence. There are a limited number of people who will pick up a nonfiction book about race, politics, and wealth. And, of those people, most only read nonfiction books that generally confirm the opinions that they already have. Perhaps those nonfiction books may deepen an individual’s understanding of a topic, but few works of nonfiction actually change somebody’s mind.

Literary fiction, I would argue, also has a limited scope. Five pages about making a sandwich and staring out a window at an injured stray cat has little potential to change the world, regardless of the clever use of a semicolon or ironic use of footnotes.  

Mysteries and thrillers, on the other hand, have the power to reach a much broader and diverse audience. It creates an opportunity to expose readers to different viewpoints and information. Fiction can serve as a foundation for conversation in a way that non-fiction cannot. Society is now more segregated than ever. The haves and have-nots rarely interact. Like minded people have formed their own communities, reinforcing their own belief systems and rarely challenge the established group mindset.

In mysteries and thrillers, we see all of these societal barriers ripped down. The jails and the courthouse become a melting pot of different castes. A rich man sits in a jail cell with a homeless man. A public defender questions the wealthiest man in town in front of a middle-class jury. The waitress with two kids accuses a star college athlete of assault. That’s what makes the stories interesting, and that’s what makes the stories more than crap, garbage, or junk.

Although the primary focus of a legal thriller or mystery is to tell a compelling story, there are many that transcend the procedural if the reader is open to it. That’s what I try to do in all my books. Without a doubt, I am there to entertain, and I truly hope my readers are entertained. But, I’m also there to provoke thought...if that’s something that a reader wants as well.

In my book “Little Boy Lost,” there is the underlying issue of race and class. In “Good Intentions,” there is the underlying issue of government and the limits of government to improve people’s lives, and in “Without Precedent,” there is the issue of personal responsibility versus corporate liability.

This is what makes mysteries and thrillers interesting. So I invite those who have dismissed them, to give it another chance. You might just find out that reading can be fun, again.

JD Trafford