Pick a headline, any headline, and it’s clear that there’s no shortage of uncertainty in the world—from the economy to politics, climate change to disasters, both natural and decidedly unnatural. Add to that the upsets that tip our lives out of equilibrium, and we can feel paralyzed, unable to move in any direction.
The nudge we need to take the next step may be closer than we think. In fact, it’s sitting right on our bookshelves. I’m talking about mysteries: those plot-driven, character-rich stories that engross us in figuring out “whodunit.”
This is far more than escapism (though that does have surprising advantages—read on). By engaging our brains in critical thinking, mysteries become an exercise in creative problem solving—right along with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache. The twists and turns of a mystery become good practice in shifting our perspective and opinions, helping us view a broader range of possibilities—including in our own lives.
Mysteries also connect us to the big questions, the ones at the very heart of our existence: good vs. evil, life and death, what we value—even what we would be prepared to die for. When we’re reminded of what really matters, choices become easier to make, and tradeoffs don’t feel like no-win situations.
Within their narrative arcs, mysteries contain roadmaps for how to approach and address our most pressing problems.
Here are a few clues:
Stop looking in the same direction.
Our favorite mysteries often point the finger at one suspect—early and often. We’re convinced – until something happens. The person we thought was guilty suddenly has an iron-clad alibi, or they end up being the next victim. Then we’re back to square one of our sleuthing. In a mystery, that’s part of the fun—in real life, though, it can be frustrating. I thought [name that option] was the answer. Now I find out it’s not possible!
But that temporary setback does not mean there isn’t a solution; we just need to look in another direction. I had a powerful experience of this many years ago while transitioning from journalism to communications consulting. I was convinced I had lined up my first large client—we’d had several meetings and discussions of how many hours I could commit every week and my hourly rate. But before that gig even began, there was a shakeup within the client’s ranks, and all the plans fell apart.
At first, I kept trying to revive this project or at least figure out what happened. Finally, I had to redirect my attention and efforts in an entirely new direction. That’s when another large client appeared, and I launched my business. Twenty-four years later, I’m still consulting.
You have what it takes.
As much as it feels otherwise, our problems are rarely bigger than we are. We have the experience, inner wisdom, and resources to tackle them—plus the courage to reach out for help and expertise. If we ever need a role model, just consider Miss Marple, a busybody in St Mary Mead with uncanny prowess for figuring things out, even though she rarely ventures beyond the village limits. Instead, this armchair detective draws upon the lessons all around her.
As she says, “Human nature is much the same everywhere, and, of course, one has opportunities of observing it at closer quarters in a village.” And so it is for each of us. We just need to consider what already exists within our circle—someone we know, somebody who knows someone we know, what we’ve done before, what someone else has done that’s similar—which can point us to the next step.
Your hero’s journey.
Most of us live within the predictability of normal life until, one day, we are thrust into the unknown, where we’re stretched, tested, and challenged. No matter how overwhelmed or upset we may feel in that moment, it’s a path we can’t avoid. The mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) described this as the essence of a hero’s journey (and, often, an unwitting hero). Think Luke Skywalker—or Princess Leia, for that matter—in Star Wars. Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit really wanted to stay in his snug little lair instead of going on a quest.
In my Ohnita Harbor Mystery Series, protagonist Gabriela Domenici has had to leave her dream job at the New York Public Library Archives & Documents to return to her hometown, where she works at the local library. In the middle of the drudgery of her day-to-day life, she stumbles upon an artifact and soon finds herself on a quest for authentication—while staying one step ahead of whoever is murdering people in her small town. Ultimately, she uncovers not only “whodunnit” but also so much about her character and capabilities.
This is not just the stuff of fiction. There is a real-life lesson for all of us to move beyond seeing our challenges as one more problem to solve. They really can be quests that will teach us much about ourselves and all we’re capable of doing.
Connecting the dots.
Here’s the thing about quests: they’re not one-and-done. Rather, it’s all about searching from one point to the next. In other words, we have to connect the proverbial dots until the fuller picture is revealed. That’s what mystery stories do!
Consider Louise Penny and my favorite of her books, The Great Reckoning, which skillfully weaves past and present after the discovery of a curious old map. As readers, we follow a circuitous trail that takes us back in time to discover the origin of the map, as well as into the backstories of several characters, culminating in the revelation of deep truths. I’ve found parallels in so many parts of my life when, as much as I wanted a quick and clear solution, I had to connect dots that took me from one action or decision to the next.
Most recently, I advocated for a family member who needed services from the state while living three thousand miles away. What I had thought would be a fairly straightforward process—make a call, fill out a form—turned out to be 14 months of trying, asking, pursuing, and waiting. Just this week, those services were approved. It’s a reminder that, when confronted by a seemingly intractable situation or vexing problem, we just need to look for the next “dot” of information or even inspiration.
Giving our brains a rest.
There is something to be said for distraction. It’s not that we’re pretending our problems don’t exist—we simply take a break from them. I had this exact conversation recently with grief specialist Sharon Brubaker, who sees the therapeutic value of pausing, even amid grief, to build up our mental and emotional stamina. Worrying 24/7 is not only exhausting but also unproductive.
We need to take our eyes (and brains) off the problems that devour our time and attention so we can go back to them with renewed energy and focus. That’s why I believe a mystery—or any absorbing book, for that matter—gives our brains a much-needed rest from constantly hashing things out.
It’s all in the story we tell ourselves. We can either become bogged down in uncertainty, or we can choose to engage in mystery. If we take the latter path, we’ll see more possibilities, practice problem-solving, and turn our most nagging questions into personal quests.
About the Author:
Patricia Crisafulli is an award-winning writer and a New York Times bestselling author. Her first novel, The Secrets of Ohnita Harbor, was published by Woodhall Press in 2022, and her second, The Secrets of Still Waters Chasm, comes out this fall. You can follow Patricia on Instagram and see more of her work on her website.