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Re-release: Mysteries without murder

This is a re-release of an episode that was originally published in September 2022. New episodes will return after a short summer break.

What do you turn to when you’re looking for a mystery without murder? In this week’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss some less violent, but very satisfying, mysteries.

Books, films, and TV shows discussed

Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story (2015) James Scott Bell

Gaudy Night (1935) Dorothy L Sayers

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts (2019) Kate Racculia

“L” is for Lawless (2009) Sue Grafton

“The Purloined Letter” (1844) Edgar Allan Poe

Gone Girl (2012) Gillian Flynn

Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (2005) Stieg Larsson

The Other Black Girl (2021) Zakia Delila Harris

National Treasure (2004)

The Mummy (1999)

Rear Window (1954) Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock

Ace of Spades (2021) Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

One of Us is Next (2020) Karen M. McManus

Agent Running in the Field (2019) John le Carré

The Last Thing He Told Me (2021) Laura Dave

The Circle (2013) Dave Eggers

Nancy Drew

Hardy Boys

Scooby Doo

“The Theft of the Royal Ruby” (1961) Agatha Christie

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Last Séance (2019) Agatha Christie

Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë

Wuthering Heights (1847) Emily Brontë

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series Alexander McCall Smith




This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brookand we both love mystery.
SarahBrook, today we are talking about something a little different: mysteries that aren’t murder.
BrookYeah, we’re taking a little departure from the traditional murder mystery. So, to get us started I will read just a little summary of this sub, sub genre.
BrookAnd you know, here on the podcast, stories we discuss usually include a baffling murder. But today we’re taking a look at the plots with nary a corpse to be found. Mysteries can be built around any crime, really such as sabotage, arson, robbery, kidnapping, or blackmail.
BrookSometimes there’s a puzzle to be solved or an item to recover, referred to as a MacGuffin in the world of mystery. Maybe there’s a hunt for a buried treasure or a hunt for a person selling confidential information Any and all of these scenarios offer secrets, lies, twists, and turns for a sleuth to unravel. In other words, the making of an intriguing mystery.
BrookSo, if any crime is good fodder for an investigation, why did the genre get so solidly planted in murder? This is likely because physical death is the worst case scenario and creates the highest stakes for the sleuth.
BrookWhat could possibly be worse than a dead body with apparently no explanation? James Scott Bell explains in his book Superstructure that all story is about the risk of death, either literally or figuratively. It may be the death of one’s reputation that is at stake, the death of innocence, the death of career and livelihood, or of an important relationship. It’s this risk of loss that keeps us turning the page.
BrookSome fans of the genre are traditionalists and believe that to be a satisfying mystery, there must be a murder, but I bet we can all think of some favorite titles that aren’t strewn with corpses. Cozies and mysteries meant for younger audiences are a great place to find less violent stories.
BrookGaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers is one cozy without murder. In this novel, a mysterious person sets off a series of incidents in a women’s college in Oxford in order to create a scandal. Kate Racculia’s Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is a middle grade novel that takes readers on an Edgar Allen Poe inspired scavenger hunt through Boston.
BrookBut PI novels and mystery thrillers can also be based around nonviolent crimes. Think Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson or L for Lawless by Sue Grafton. And remember in Poe’s early detective story, amateur sleuth Monsieur Dupin is only searching for a missing letter.
BrookSo, Sarahto begin our conversation, I’m wondering about your opinion. Are nonviolent crimes enough to keep you invested in a mystery?
SarahAbsolutely, but before I answer your question, let me say, Brook,that was a really great summary and I’ve learned a new word: MacGuffin. I don’t think I’d come across that before.
SarahSo I knew that, we were going to be doing this episode and and initially I thought “there’s not, you know, I can’t think of very many books that I’ve read that don’t have a murder in them”. But ah after a little bit of reflection, I realized that actually, there’s a fair number that I’ve read.
SarahI would say most of the books that I read do have a murder, but there’s certainly some that don’t. I’m currently reading Gaudy Night, which you just referred to, and I’ve read Gone Girl and Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. But, in the last year I’ve read three or four I think that don’t center center around a murder. One of those is The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris and that is really more of a workplace thriller, more of a why done it, as well as well as a who done it. But it’s not a murder that she’s trying to solve.
SarahWhat about you, Brook?
BrookSame. When I got to thinking about it, some of my favorite books have been based more around some puzzle. Or, I love treasure hunt stories. So um, you know the found letter that means something and then you have to discover what in the world is this referring to and it sends them off on this mysterious adventure. I love those stories, especially in film. You know, some of my favorite mystery movies have been treasure hunt movies like National Treasure. I love that show, even though it’s kind of hokey I love it. I like The Mummy, same thing. And The Mummy to me harkens back to some of the Agatha Christie Egypt mysteries because, you know, the curse and those kind of things. So, I really love that. And then I am a huge Alfred Hitchcock film fan and I go back and forth. So Rear Window, but, of course, that includes a murder. Rear Window is one of my faves but right up there is Vertigo. And, so I think that there definitely can be enough to keep us just as intrigued and have the stakes be just as high when the story is told in that way to keep us turning the page or on the edge of our seat, as it were.
SarahYeah, and I really like what you quoted about all story being at the risk of death and that death not necessarily being a literal death, right? Death of reputation or death of relationship and I think those drive a lot of these stories that that don’t have murder as the as the central theme. You know when we talked about domestic thrillers, we talked about secrets, right? And it’s preserving that secret.
SarahSome of the other books that I was thinking about, particularly around um reputation, there’s Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, which is you know it’s a YA mystery set in a high school where there are poison pen notes being circulated by text message. And you know trying to figure out who is behind really trying to destroy the reputation of of the main characters. Um, and so I read that earlier this year and and really enjoyed that.
SarahAnd there are some other examples in YA. I think of Karen Mcmanus’s One of Us is Next, which there is a death but that’s not the core of the story. It’s not a murder investigation as much as trying to figure out who is it that, again, is trying to harm the reputations of the of the characters.
BrookAnd that’s a really good point because a lot of times I should say in these stories, the initial crime that’s being investigated is not murder, but there’s the threat of physical death if you don’t figure out what’s going on. There’s that fear that, for instance, in kidnapping, that’s an obvious fear. You know if we don’t find this person, they could die.
BrookOr the searching for the person selling state secrets. You know the world might end. So, the in the endpoint could be physical death and so that’s sort of what’s trying to be prevented in the investigation and I think that that makes it really fun, because you are, you’re worrying along with the sleuth if they’re going to get it in time.
SarahYeah, and another example again, just thinking about secrets and like you mentioned state secrets. John le Carré’s Agent Running in the Field, which I highly recommend listening to the audiobook because he actually narrates it, which was really really nice to listen to. There’s there’s no murder in that. But it’s a question of who’s telling secrets and and do they realize they’re telling secrets and and who are they telling them to.
BrookThe “who can you trust” is a really big feeling that I get when I read these types of mysteries because the sleuth or but the protagonist is always on shaky ground, not really knowing who they can trust when they’re trying to unravel the the case. And I think that that’s true in a murder investigation as well. But these sometimes feel a little less black and white to me. You know the the steps of the investigation aren’t quite as spelled out and so I feel like we have a little bit more of that gray area and who can I trust and how am I going to how am I going to get the information that I need.
SarahYeah, and a great example of that is Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me which is a domestic thriller that there’s no… I don’t think that there’s any murder in that. It’s a disappearance and they’re trying to figure out you know why did the character disappear and, again, who can they trust as they try to try to figure that out.
BrookYeah, that sounds fantastic.
SarahAnother one that I thought of, and I don’t know if I would characterize this as a mystery, although I did see it on a couple of lists of underrated mysteries. And it was The Circle by Dave Eggers which is I think it would fall into the category of workplace suspense. And it’s as much a commentary on social media and privacy as it is on that you know that the tension that comes out of that book around just things happening in the workplace that are that are um, unexpected.
BrookThat’s neat that sounds like ah a bit of a crossover ah a crossover title that would be worth checking out.
SarahYeah, I read it I read it a while ago. But I think it might be worth rereading as our focus on social media is kind of um has has changed since it came out. I think it came out in 2014 I think. And you just think about how much has changed in the last almost ten years since then.
BrookUm, oh man. Yeah.
SarahYou mentioned you know young you know mysteries for young readers. So, you know I, I think most of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories would be. Ah, you know they don’t they don’t have murders. They’ve got a lot of the the kidnappings and the um the secrets missing objects that kind of thing. And they were certainly very satisfying to read as um, when I was much younger. Um, and I do have. A box set of the first 10 Hardy Boys books that I’m planning to start reading at at some point soon. Um, and and I’m hoping that they’ll be just as just as satisfying as they were um, they were then.
SarahAnd actually, I’ve listened to a couple of the more modern versions of. Both Nancy Drew and um Hardy boys and they were yeah, I really enjoyed those so I think to answer your your first question. Definitely these books can be can be satisfying.
BrookIn mentioning the mysteries for younger people. It brought back. We we discussed this earlier when we were in YA mystery. Ah but you think about Scooby-Doo and those episodes are essentially the exact same story every episode right? It’s basically the same story with the details changed but I will sit down and watch one every time.
BrookSo yes, we can still find satisfaction in a very nonviolent caper sort of mystery. Because this and the stakes I would say in that one are you know they’re scared to death and maybe they maybe it is the fear of ah of death when that monster catches me what’s going to happen but it just hooks you right in and you want to find out who the who the disguised monster is so you know they pull it off and I will watch one to this day.
SarahThat’s a great example.
SarahI was thinking about some of the authors that we think of as writing murder mysteries. So, Agatha Christie comes to mind. And I know she wrote some of her short stories were were not murder mysteries, but um, you know solving thefts.
SarahThe example that I can think of is “The Christmas Pudding” or the I think it’s “The Theft of the Royal Ruby” where a jewel goes missing and Poirot comes to the rescue and and figures out what’s happened to it. And yeah, it was a great read and I’m sure there are some Sherlock stories that are not murders. Um I don’t know if I can think of any offhand but I’m sure that there are some that are where he’s investigating a theft.
BrookUm, yes, um, our friend Sherri Mitchell suggested Agatha’s The Last Séance, which is a short story collection that are essentially paranormal mysteries. Um, and I shouldn’t say that none of them contain murder because it’s been a while since I’ve read the collection but they’re fantastic and they’re much more of that eerie paranormal. What’s going on mystery and they’re they’re fantastic. So you’re right, some of the greats also dabbled in this. Um, even though I think at the core the golden age audience really did love the body drop.
SarahYeah, that’s a great example. I don’t think I’ve read any of the stories from that collection, but you know, it’s coming up on spooky season. So maybe I will be reading one or two of those on a dark October night coming up.
BrookYeah, they’re great and they’re really short so they would be a great before bedtime read for the spooky season.
SarahSo Brookwould you consider Jane Eyre to be a mystery?
BrookThat is a really great question and I lean towards yes. And I feel the same way about Wuthering Heights. I feel like that’s a bit of a mystery too.
BrookAnd maybe we’re back into that domestic thriller subcategory that we that we covered before but ah, a really early beginning version of those stories where they have a lot of the mystery elements even though it’s not a pure mystery investigation.
SarahYeah, and I mean I think I would I would agree with you. I think I would categorize it as falling under the mystery space. An early example of domestic thriller. Because what is it that keeps you reading that story? It’s trying to figure out what’s going on. Right?
BrookYeah, and they’re dark. You know they’ve got a dark undercurrent. I love those stories for that reason much more than the romance that’s involved.
SarahSo one other series and it’s been a very long time since I’ve read any of the books in it. But um I think certainly in the first book there is no murder is the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander Mccall Smith I don’t know if you’ve read any of those books. But I think they are more around being a detective rather than a sleuth solving murders rather.
Brook I haven’t read those but that series did come up on a list of recommendations if you were looking for a mystery without murder. And we’ll post that in our show notes because I found a great list because that’s the other thing. I think there is a group of people who love to read mystery that really don’t want to read about murder. And so, it’s good to have some options if you would rather enjoy the the ride of the solving the puzzle but don’t really want it to get violent or gruesome. So we’ll include that list.
Brook I also would recommend for people who feel that way that they lean towards the middle grade or YA mysteries, because those stories are fantastic. And even though the sleuths might be a little younger, I think you still get the same experience of mystery and you’re you’re going to get a lot ah less violence and um. Some of you know, less deep or maybe um, you have think of the world but less deep or dark Topics. So, I would point people in that direction.
SarahYeah, I would agree. I think we talked about that when we were talking about YA that it can be kind of a a lighter take on some of the heavier crimes.
SarahOk, so Brookthanks for this conversation. I think it was really good to explore some of these non-murder mysteries.
SarahIt was really fun, and I’m going to pay closer attention and start tracking the stories I read that fall into this category.
BrookSo, everyone thank you for joining us once again on Clued in Mystery.
BrookI’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah. And we both love mystery.