October 26, 2003
Reading Scared

It was a dark and stormy night. (Oooh.) She saw a stranger watching from across the street. (Oooh.) Suddenly she heard the slow creak of the front door. (Oooh...and then?)

Scare us, please. Children, whether shrieking with laughter at the adult who says, "boo!" or huddling with nervous pleasure around a campfire for ghost stories, can't get enough. Neither can adults, who read enough scary stories to make mysteries one of the most popular book categories. It seems to be instinctive: we love being scared. But just a little. Just to the point that mystery writer Jeremiah Healy calls "disquieting."

"We like to be scared," says Healy, "but we prefer when it's vicarious." He compares the pleasure we take in reading mysteries to the delicious danger we knew as children listening to a scary story, but knowing our parents were there to protect us. "I think people don't read mysteries to be scared as much as to be entertained. The fear you feel toward the end of the book is like the glass of port or the dessert at the end of a meal."

Healy is the award-winning author of 17 novels and more than 60 short stories written under his own name and under his pseudonym, Terry Devane. His most recent book is the Terry Devane novel A Stain Upon the Robe. A former military police officer, attorney, and law professor, Healy writes legal and private-investigator mysteries that are often set in Boston. As a college student working in a sheriff's office, Healy first learned about how people function under extreme conditions.

"I came to appreciate a level of fear I had not known before and how you need to control it in order to function. Now I can put my fictional victim in that mindset."

It could be argued that, these days, we live in that mindset. Why at a time when world events seem unremittingly frightening--and random--do we still seek out this added dose of dread? In fact, we want something scary to read now even more. Healy says that, in the last two years the popularity of mystery books has soared. It's understandable. The page, the binding are solid boundaries from which the terrors cannot escape. It's an implicit contract between author and reader: I'm going to entertain you by scaring you, but in a good way, a controlled way. So don't worry: on the last page, everything will be all right.

Says Healy, "In difficult times--uncertain economic times, times of war, both of which we have now--people want an organized story they can follow. They want a story that troubles them, but within a certain range. And they want a resolution."

In a mystery, terror follows a comfortingly predictable course. As Healy points out, a gunfight in the first chapter is not likely to have serious consequences for the hero. As the book progresses, the mayhem quotient will increase.

"It's like a roller-coaster," he says, "where the biggest drop is at the end. If the biggest drop came at the beginning, you wouldn't think much of the ride by the time you got off. The action is in control, but escalating."

The type of action readers look for may depend on the lives they lead. Healy's type of mystery often attracts an audience of professionals comfortable with complexity and drawn to more cerebral tensions. Those who feel their work lives are more routine and lacking in excitement may seek out the heightened stimulation of graphic slasher stories.

But whatever our preferences in style, mysteries cut across all lines, socioeconomic, ethnic, gender, and age. As readers, we think a scary trick is a treat to be savored.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

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