When my oldest daughter was two and a half, she was not speaking and was withdrawing from social contact. This was a mystery: Why wasn't she developing the way we expected? The mystery was resolved when she was diagnosed with autism.
At first, the doctors and educators were optimistic about her future. But it soon became apparent that things were not going to work out. She never learned to speak. Her behaviors became unmanageable, and at the age of seven she was put in a group home.
I never realized until then how much parenting is based on a mystery: how will my child turn out and what will her future be? For my oldest daughter, I already knew. She would be pretty much the same for the rest of her life.
This mystery is filled with anguish. Sensing the problem, getting the diagnosis, and losing all hope for her to have a modicum of a normal life all caused anguish.
But anguish is not the reason we read mysteries, even "true crime." I often watch a titillating show on NBC on Friday night called Inside Edition. It tells the stories of actual crimes. We see the anguish of family and friends. It is palpable.
Why do I get pleasure from watching such a show? It's not for edification. I already know that murder exists, the innocent often get hurt, and there are horribly sadistic people in this world. This is painful to admit, but it's true: I watch the show for titillation.
I have sympathy for those suffering, but I do not feel anguish. I think the reason for this is that the show, replete with reporters and a person who introduces and concludes the show in a formal fashion, clearly becomes a 'story'. A story has a specific structure and organization. It is predictable and comforting. When disturbing facts are revealed within that structure, its very normality prevents me from feeling anguish.
While the people in the story are anguished, I feel a little sympathy but a lot of titillation.
Could the same sort of story be made of my daughter's autism? I doubt it, but I could be wrong. I don't think most people would receive the same sort of pleasure watching a family deal with a horrible diagnosis as they do from watching a story about a murder case. Could it be that the issue would be replete with scientific and medical terminology, which don't lend themselves to the same sort of 'story' structure as do murders?
Titillation and anguish are hardly the only emotions that are associated with mysteries, both real life and fictional. Curiosity is obviously another one. Wonderment. Awe.
What is it in terms of the emotions associated with mystery that draws us to mystery novels? How does the structure of stories and the way a story is told present these emotions? What emotions might these stories protect us from?