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Why We Read Detective Fiction

Theory of Mind in Action

Series:

Judith P. Saunders

Abstract

Research in evolutionary psychology helps to explain the powerful appeal of detective fiction, a genre that has achieved a distinct identity and worldwide readership since its emergence in the early twentieth century. Addressing the universal fear of victimization, classical detective stories feature protagonists whose exceptional mindreading skills enable them to identify perpetrators of secret treacheries and to expose the workings of convoluted plots. The detective-hero relies principally on Theory of Mind to infer an antagonist’s motives and methods. Readers are amazed by the detective’s ability to enter into the mental universe of other people, reassured by the restoration of order and fairness such mental acuity makes possible. At the same time, moreover, readers are fascinated by evildoers’ cunning machinations, which depend upon mindreading capacities equal – or almost equal – to those of detective-heroes.