Coronavirus reading: the mystery of the murder mystery's appeal

Louis Mortimer - Cornish Coast from the Lizard

Quarantine and self-isolation around the world mean that people have time to do a lot more reading over the coming months. To give our readers some ideas MercatorNet is featuring short book reviews from contributors and readers.

You might also be interested in two great reading lists from MercatorNet:

101 books Gen Ys must read before they die

101 books Millennials must read before they die


As life in my corner of Texas has grown increasingly isolated over the last week or so, I have found a small measure of continuity and comfort in looking forward to what awaited me at bedtime: The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude, the pen name of Ernest C. Elmore (1901-1957), a British novelist and mystery writer.

My wife found it in our local public library before they announced they were closing due to the coronavirus restrictions, and I have been making it last as long as I could by reading only a chapter or so each night.

Alas, I turned the last page yesterday evening. Those who haven't read this particular novel (one of more than 30 that Bude wrote over his two-decade career) will not find any serious spoilers herein, but rather an appreciation of Bude's gifts and a speculation about why mystery novels in general appeal to us in times of crisis.

As mysteries go, Bude's novel—it was his first—has many of the elements that are typical of the British manor-house genre: a large old estate owned by a crusty old tightwad with a beautiful young niece who was dependent on him financially; servants who see and do things they shouldn't; a kindly old vicar whose hobby is sleuthing and sharing mystery novels with the local agnostic doctor; and the usual brace of constables, inspectors, superintendants, and townspeople in a small fishing village on the Cornish coast.

Bude made sure to move his plot along with at least one added complication per chapter, usually dropped in near the end. Pretty nearly all the characters are believable, given the conventions of the genre. Small-town Anglican priests with what was genteelly termed a "living" probably did have enough time on their hands to pursue odd hobbies, and in a place where everybody knows everybody else and one has to go to a lot of trouble to keep something a secret, police work differs fundamentally from big-city sleuthing, which tends to be much more anonymous and technical.

Perhaps the aspect of the novel I enjoyed the most was the atmosphere. Life in 1930s Cornwall is about as far removed as one can get from my present circumstances, so it was a relief to put aside the day's preoccupations and enter a world where the chief concern is the question of the whereabouts of Ronald Hardy, the writer and erstwhile lover of Ruth Tregarthen, Julius Tregarthen's niece and unknowing heir to the estate.

I will have to admit that my technical mind caught a clue that Bude probably did not intend the reader to notice early on: the fact that some of the bullets fired at the late and not especially lamented Julius both made holes in a large picture window, and embedded themselves in the opposite wall. Immediately, I imagined someone using the fact that two points in space define a line to identify the location from which the shots were fired. And sure enough, toward the end of the novel, the Reverend Dodd has the happy insight to exploit this fact with a bit of string.

But except for that perhaps too-obvious setup, Bude did a good job of strewing the reader's path with enough red herrings to stock a fish market. The local official detective, Inspector Bigswell, becomes increasingly befuddled until the very end, when he cooperates with the amateur Dodd to crack the case, giving all us mystery readers hope that we, too, might solve a murder one day.

Why on earth should we read such stuff if our own real lives are currently more than bountifully provided with things to worry about?

It's hard to put into words, but I think the main appeal of mystery novels may lie in their power to engage us in the particulars of a society as its members grapple with the problem of justice, which is in a way the fundamental challenge to every society. Take the murder out of a mystery, and you have people in a particular place going about their ordinary lives. While brilliant novelists can make great literature out of such material (Flannery O'Connor comes to mind), it takes much less talent to engage the reader if characters are placed under the artificial tension of having to get to the bottom of a murder.

Bude's talent was admittedly not among the first in his genre. In The Cornish Coast Murder, he even makes a bow from the stage to his betters, so to speak, when at the beginning of the novel, the Reverend Dodd and Dr. Pendrill savor their latest batch of mysteries ordered from the lending library. They include many of the greats of the 1930s such as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. It turns out that Bude's other professional activity was stage direction, and in the way each chapter is expertly filled with action and dialogue, one can tell that Bude used his theatrical experience to good advantage.

But in parlous times such as ours, even a mediocre mystery novel will be welcome relief from the daily email and news that is bringing the kinds of things that once stimulated the New York wit Dorothy Parker to say, "What fresh hell is this?"

If the rest of Bude's novels are anywhere near as good as his first, they will provide you with an escape from the admittedly grim reality that many of us face these days. While most of those who normally go to church on Sundays won't be doing so for a while, it would be a good idea to set aside a day of rest, just as we did before the crisis, and there are a lot worse ways of spending your spare time than reading a mystery novel.

And shortly before I wrote this piece, I learned that our local library is trying to set up a "no-contact" checkout procedure online, which gives me hope that I can find a supply of un-read mysteries to help me through whatever is coming. I hope your local library does the same.  

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.   


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