National Crime Reading Month

Murder Mysteries Are My Comfort Food

by Robin Stevens

In the first months of the pandemic, I stopped being able to do much of anything. I wandered blankly through my life, being extremely calm and sensible and placing orders for two blueberry bushes, 100 tortillas and a 3kg tub of hummus. A lot of things sounded like good ideas in March and April 2020 that in retrospect were not.

I also spent a lot of time lying in a hammock and reading. I tried a lot of different books, but it turned out that the only thing I was actually able to focus on was crime fiction. I read The Moonstone, The Murder on the Links and The Body in the Library (I tried to read The Mirror Crack’d but gave up because … well, if you know you know). Then I moved on to more recent mysteries – Sadie, Rules for Perfect Murders, One Of Us is Next.

On paper (sorry), it does not make sense that, at one of the darkest moments in all of our lives, I sought refuge in murder mysteries. A lot is said, and rightly, about the comforting power of books. They are windows on other worlds, passports to distant places, marvellous escapes. The idea of escaping to a story where lots of people die does not immediately sound much fun. But what I have known for years, and what I proved (unfortunately) in spring 2020, is that there’s nothing more comforting than murder.

The world of a murder mystery might seem violent, random and cruel, but there’s really nothing more carefully balanced and rule-bound. For the story to work, only the victims selected by the author can die. Only the murderer or murderers can kill them. And the culprits must always be caught by the detective or detectives, or in some other way unmasked before the readers. A pandemic, a war, a pointless twist-of-fate accident – none of those things can be allowed to happen in a crime novel, or if they do happen they must somehow tie into the overarching plot. A crime novel concerns itself only with solveable, human-size problems – it exists in a universe where justice exists, where wrongdoers are punished, where the good are rewarded. There is nothing more like fantasy than a well-plotted murder mystery.

The idea that murder mysteries are comforting is, of course, not a new thesis, and it’s also something that’s fascinatingly easy to prove. Although crime and murder are perennially interesting to human beings, it’s possible to tie boomtimes for crime fiction to historical moments of particular crisis. The ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction in the UK, in the 20s and 30s, came after the singular devastations of the first world war and the 1918 flu pandemic. Faced with so much desperate, meaningless loss, readers wanted to see deaths treated as something important, something that could be fixed and solved and made whole again. And writers wanted to create heroes who could make sense of the senseless, who had not just survived but overcome the terrors of war. Dorothy Sayers’ detective Wimsey suffers from shellshock, and Poirot was partly created from Christie’s experiences of Belgian refugees near her home – and in the books they star in they are almost godlike figures, able to distinguish right from wrong, to reassure, and ultimately to make safe.

My detectives Daisy and Hazel were invented in the 2010s, but they exist in a 1930s world, and they fulfil all the same functions of reassurance and truth-telling for both their readers and for their author. I created them because I needed a place of safety and certainty, and their stories have become safe places for thousands of readers. And we need those safe places now more than ever.

I am not surprised to see the period we are living through – conflict all around us, a pandemic that we fear to mention but that nonetheless weighs on our every action – becoming a new golden age of detective fiction. In the chaos of the real world we need the certainty, the repetition and the boundaries of genre fiction, and we especially need the kind of care and sense of safety that only a really good murder mystery can give. I am so proud to be able to give that to my readers – I don’t think that there is a higher honour than to have written books that can be with people at the moment they need comfort the most.