Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Mysteries Save the World: Guest Post by Stuart Gibbs


Since I write mysteries for younger readers, I end up speaking to classrooms full of them more than I would have ever imagined. I always leave time for questions — because they always have questions. Many are clever and insightful; many are silly; a few are just plain weird. But there is one that comes up often: Why do I like mysteries so much? 

To be honest, when I was originally asked this question, I had no idea what the answer was. 

Which was odd, because I have loved reading mysteries my entire life. As a kid, my favorite books were Donald J. Sobel’s Encyclopedia Brown series and Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. As an adult, my favorite writers are primarily mystery writers as well. And I love writing mysteries. Books that I didn’t even intend to be mysteries turn into mysteries. (At first, I had thought that my Moon Base Alpha series would be about life at the first lunar colony, but before I knew it, there was a dead body involved.) 

So I realized that I ought to figure out the answer to this question. Why do I like mysteries? And after some serious cogitation and soul-searching, something clicked: 

A mystery is a story where the smartest person wins. 

In fiction, the greatest detectives are renowned for their intelligence above all else. They don’t save the day with superpowers or improbable skill with guns or martial arts. Instead, they put together the clues, deduce what the criminal has done — and then, quite often, figure out how to capture that criminal. And to top it off, they are generally respected — if not revered — by everyone around them for this skill. 

As a kid, the sleuths of literature provided me with great roles models: proof that working hard in school and honing your intelligence would ultimately bring you great esteem and success. But now, as an adult, there is another reason I appreciate mysteries placing intelligence on a pedestal; in much of the rest of our society, the opposite appears to be taking place. 

Consider the general pop culture image of the smart person: the nerdy, unpopular social misfit. (Exhibit A: The Big Bang Theory, the most popular comedy on TV at the end of its nine-year run, although it isn’t hard to conjure up many other instances.) In film and television, you are much more likely to find a genius portrayed in this way — or, perhaps even worse, as a maladapted evil mastermind — rather than the way that I have often found geniuses to be in real life: athletic, adventurous, dynamic and socially-adept. 

This has an unfortunate trickle-down effect: If society sees smart people as socially inept nerds who are the objects of ridicule or disdain, then people become ashamed of being smart. There is proof that this has tangible effects: fewer students study science, technology, engineering or math (and fewer women enter those fields than men); it becomes socially acceptable to say ‘I’m no good at math’ when really, it should be embarrassing; large sections of the population dismiss real scientific breakthroughs as conspiracies. And so on. 

Meanwhile, mysteries buck this trend. The mystery section of your local bookstore is chock-full of intriguing, engaging and admirable geniuses, while just about the only respectable intellectuals one sees in film or TV are detectives, many of whom who have sprung there from literature. 

I’m not saying that other genres are totally devoid of intelligent heroes. (As a kind, my favorite movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which put just as much emphasis on Indiana Jones’ problem-solving skills as his fighting ones — and had a solid mystery at the center: where was the ark?) But those heroes are few and far between. Imagine what might happen if other genres gave geniuses the same respect that mysteries do: the social stigma of intelligence might fall away; budding students might flock to science, technology, math and engineering in droves; more money might be earmarked for research; solutions for vexing problems like climate change and interstellar travel might come faster. 

 Only good can come from telling people that there is no shame in being smart. 

Therefore, mysteries are saving the world. 

And they’re also really fun to read. Which, of course, is the other reason I like them so much. 


Stuart Gibbs is the New York Times bestselling author of the Charlie Thorne series, the FunJungle series, Moon Base Alpha series, and Spy School series. He has written screenplays, worked on a whole bunch of animated films, developed TV shows, been a newspaper columnist, and researched capybaras (the world’s largest rodents). Stuart lives with his family in Los Angeles. You can learn more about what he’s up to at StuartGibbs.com


1 comment:

Jennifer J. Chow said...

Fascinating post, Stuart. (By the way, my kids love your books!) I've never thought of mysteries as highlighting and celebrating smart people. Hurrah for mysteries!