Monday, May 1, 2023

What Reading Mysteries Says about You: Guest Post by David Unger, Ph.D

David Unger, Ph.D:

Most people like to believe they have free choice. Certainly, when it comes to what book you select to read you’d like to think the choice is your own. And, for the most part, once you are out of school, the choice is yours. But is it really? Why do you pick this book over that? Maybe a friend recommended it or you read a good review. But we’ve all heard recommendations we didn’t heed and reviews we didn’t follow up on. So, why are you reading what you’re reading?

And, even more interesting is why are you reading this now. To get more insight into you? Do you know? And, do you know why the genre you prefer is what you mostly select? Why cozies, why historical fiction, why noir, why why why?

I’ve been a therapist for my entire career. I’ve helped people peel back the layers to discover why they do the things they do and what they can do to improve their lives. Let’s see if we can gain some greater understanding into why you read mysteries and what you get from the experience.

For starters, why do you think you choose the mysteries you read? Perhaps you like discovering the pieces of the puzzle and putting them together. Maybe you like the tension and intrigue. Maybe you like observing how the evil doers get their comeuppance. 

Whatever your initial response to why you like mysteries, chances are the answer lies deeper within you. Therapists know that “the conscience mind is the last to know.” Your unconscious very well knows the answer, but it’s hard to tap into that. Maybe tomorrow you can recall a dream you have tonight and get a clue, but in the absence of hearing from your unconscious let me offer some possibilities.


Freud thought our personalities were basically in place by the time we were five. Let’s just say that is partially true. You have a lot of clear memories from back then? Most people don’t. That leaves a lot of the causes for your motivation out of reach. You spend enough time in a therapist’s office you might unravel some of that, but your insights and suspicions are rarely verifiable. So, the real truth about why you read mysteries will remain unsolved but let me give you a leg up.


Like any good story mysteries take you away from your life and put you into another realm. A realm where things are out of control but where someone is able to make sense of it all. There are twists and turns. You think you’re on to something and then you’re not. But almost all mysteries end with the mystery being solved, some order restored and you get to feel that someone out there is able to make things better.

We all want to make things better, have our act together, bring order to our universes and have the things that confound us no longer frustrate us or make us feel less able. No matter a mystery’s protagonists limitations they are able to rise above them and for a moment in time make the world a better place and we all want that. 


My sleuth has his shortcomings, but with a dash of humor and a ray of hope he is able to bring the guilty parties forward and restore some semblance of order to the world. That is, until he gets called forth again and has to grapple with other forces of evil. It’s an endless battle, which is why mystery series are so much fun. You can join again with your sleuth of choice as they take on the world’s injustices. You know how your sleuth does their thing and you become part of the posse. I invite you to join in.


DAVID UNGER, PhD, is a writer, therapist, educator, and author of the mystery series A Lesson in…, which currently has nine books, with two more coming soon. He is also known for his series of relationship training manuals, which includes a guide to parenting teens. A graduate of UCLA, he lives in California. He’s been a licensed therapist and Chair of a graduate psychology program most of his career. A Lesson in Woo-Woo and Murder launches today.


1 comment:

Richard Goutal said...

I enjoyed that a lot. I often wonder the same thing since I while away so much of my life with mysteries. And I totally align with the next to the last paragraph, especially: 'You can join again with your sleuth of choice as they take on the world’s injustices.' Justice - yes! Please God if you are actually there! Thank you Frank and Joe, Perry, and now Harry and many others.

But Dr Unger, what I really want to know is this. Why do some folks prefer those crime fiction stories with unreliable narrators in which none-of-the-characters are remotely "good" nor do they give a hoot about justice. They prefer those kinds of mysteries (using the term loosely to apply to all crime fiction). Our mystery book club just finished a book called My Sweet Girl. It won the best thriller award from ITW last year, which was a factor in choosing the book. Obviously many like it and joyfully give it (and many others like it) five stars.(But not the 12 of us at this group's meeting.) I understand we are not all alike. But can you tell me why people read these kinds of books where order is not restored at the end? What insight can you bring to this?