Have you ever thought about why you love mysteries? Do you relish the escape factor? Enjoy the challenge of the puzzle? Do you just want to be entertained? Depending on the subgenre, crime fiction can be thrilling, intriguing, or fun—often all three. Mysteries are popular for many reasons. Yet I believe there’s one reason, a deeper reason, that underlies them all. I think we’re drawn to mysteries in fiction because life itself is a mystery. And we want to get to the bottom of it.
“When I sat down to write The Alchemist, all I knew is that I wanted to write about my soul. I wanted to write about my quest to find my treasure. I wanted to follow the omens, because I knew even then that the omens are the language of God.”– Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, 25th Anniversary Edition
Naturally, humans are questioning creatures. If there’s a secret, we want in on it. If there’s a code, we want to crack it. We philosophizing types wonder why we’re here in the first place. What are we meant to do? What is this thing called life all about? And what’s on the other side?
Our favorite sleuths, of course, want to know whodunit and why. (And where, and with what weapon… in the conservatory with the lead pipe, perhaps?) They’re trying to solve a case—and oftentimes help someone or save themselves in the process. The great thing is, in the end, they always do.
How do they do that?
From Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew, successful detectives all have a few signature traits in common. They are exceedingly observant. They are brave. They’re tenacious, and they’re curious. Always curious. If we’re looking for answers—if we’re on a personal quest, following our own hero’s journey—we’d do well to emulate them.
Here’s a brief guide, a starter map of sorts, to help you act like detectives do—and maybe even enrich your life in the process.
Whether amateur or professional, our sleuthy role models have a knack for noticing what others have missed. You can be sure they don’t have their eyes glued to a phone. They pick up on little clues and file them away for future reference. (What’s that? A broken locket? A torn letter? A hotel matchbook?) They see the suspect’s shifty eyes, and the holes in their alibis. The clues may not make sense at first, but that doesn’t matter. The detective likes to mull things over. Sometimes all it takes is finding that one last missing piece of the puzzle for everything to fall into place.
In the Flower House Mysteries, protagonist Sierra Ravenswood stumbles into sleuthing by accident (naturally), but it’s her openness to signs that makes her good at it. Signs from the Universe are like clues, hints from a higher power. Like her granny, wise with mountain lore, Sierra sees omens in nature and finds meaning in unlikely coincidences.
We can do the same.
In fact, this kind of observation is part of what makes real life so magical and mysterious. Whether you believe in Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, or tend toward skepticism, isn’t it cool when uncanny coincidences occur? Recurring symbols, snippets of a song that just happen to answer a question on your mind… These things happen all the time—but only if you’re paying attention.
“A vision in a dream, the cry of a crow, a sudden rush of wind that rustles the leaves—the Divine speaks to us through countless signs that accompany daily life.” – Phyllis Curott, Witch Crafting: A Spiritual Guide to Making Magic
A detective must be bold. Even when they’re afraid, they have to muster the courage to enter into the darkness: the musty basement or dusty attic, the creepy cave or tangled forest. The sordid back alley. Often armed only with a flashlight and a burning drive to know the truth, they’ll go where they need to go—even when the truth is liable to be painful or scary. Solving mysteries is not for the faint of heart.
If you fancy yourself a seeker, if you’re searching for meaning and purpose, you must be courageous too. While you probably won’t have to confront any villains in dark alleys (let’s hope!), you will have to face yourself. Remember the challenge of the Oracle at Delphi: Before receiving a vision, you must first “Know thyself.” What are your deepest desires? What are your hopes and fears, your habits and patterns? Shine a light into your personal shadows, and don’t be afraid. If you want to move forward, you may have to take a risk every now and then. Channel your plucky idols, and you’ll be fine.
Don’t give up.
“It often seems to me that’s all detective work is, wiping out your false starts and beginning again.” – Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile
Detectives are nothing if not persistent. They have to be. It wouldn’t be a story if there were no obstacles, challenges, or setbacks. There are going to be false leads and false starts. Red herrings are to be expected. And it’s okay. When one clue doesn’t pan out, the sleuth will follow another. They’ll go back to the drawing board time and time again. Patience always pays off.
The same is true for just about any goal. Whatever you want in life, mistakes are inevitable. If you’re knocked down, you know what to do. Get up and try again. If it’s worth it, begin again.
How many detectives have been accused of being nosy? Quite a lot, I’m sure. It doesn’t bother them. With few qualms, they snoop, they spy, and they meddle. They wonder about things. Again, that desire to uncover the truth is a strong one. And lucky for us! It’s our own curiosity that keeps the pages turning late into the night. We want to know whodunit as much as our detectives do.
As I stated at the outset, mystery speaks to us on many levels. We want to know what’s behind the secret door. And we want to find out what it all means. We seek to understand. But I think, sometimes, we can also enjoy the not-knowing. As Einstein said, “Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”
To be curious is to be present. It’s to appreciate the little things, to experience fascination and joy and wonder.
“If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere.” – Thich Nhat Hahn, The Way of Gratitude: Readings for a Joyful Life
What might you see if you keep your eyes open? What whispers might you hear, if only you would listen? How might your life be brighter and more interesting? Like an inquisitive, headstrong sleuth, why not dare to find out?