Tuesday, February 17, 2009


All my life I’ve read mysteries. My mother read mysteries - she also read westerns and stories about the cavalry and the Battle at Little Big Horn. It was the mystery gene that was transmitted.

Beginning with Nancy Drew in the third grade, I spent decades reading my way through series by writers British, Australian, Swedish, Japanese, American and I can’t recall how many others. Nancy Drew is tied to very specific memories, such as my Aunt Dot walking up the driveway on my birthday with a gift stack, each present wrapped separately in an identifiable shape that could only be one thing. The public library, across the street from my elementary school, did not carry Nancy Drew, nor the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls or any of the other somewhat pulpy favorites as they were deemed to lack literary merit. It seemed to me then and now to be a version of de facto censorship. Someone had read something - maybe that Nancy had a boyfriend! - they didn’t like and all the works in the genre were considered trashy, unworthy of shelf space at the Santa Catalina or any other branch. So one had to purchase the books, trade with friends or receive them as gifts in order to read them. And even though there wasn’t, at least in the N.D. books, a thread that spun out from one book to the next, it seemed essential to read them in order. No need for a paragraph before the opening page which said, “Previously in Nancy Drew...”

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were early grown-up mysteries, along with Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. Reading, particularly of mysteries, sustained me through uneven times; during a early and trauma-ridden first marriage, I easily consumed nearly a book a day. But I was not, am not, a mystery fan who likes to solve the puzzle. If I can figure out who-did-what, I think the writer hasn’t done his or her job. Of course there are the stories where the villain is known early on, but that’s not the same thing. One day it occurred to me to wonder just what was it that drew me to mysteries, not quite to the exclusion of other fiction.

There is the puzzle aspect, but since I don’t set out to solve it, what does that mean? The closest I can come to explain this passion to myself - and I don’t believe that we are ever required to explain ourselves to ourselves or anyone else - was probably rooted in the sense I have that it is all a mystery. There was a time in my life when I visited psychics, wanting to know what was ahead; I wanted a periscope with which to peer around corners and try and learn if there was a good outcome waiting for me. And the definition of “a good outcome” was very specific, filled with expectation based on wanting and a limited, naive grasp of the way in which the Universe operates. Lengthy, bruising lessons have helped me admit that the way ahead is uncharted, unchartable, and the energy spent in trying to see in such dim light embezzles the energy we could invest in finding the joy or the peace of right now. A well-constructed mystery novel frequently gives us the answer that daily life denies us - how does it all turn out? I find something comfortable in such stories, yet I am never disappointed when the ending is ambiguous, a more familiar situation in which the mystery continues to unfold as time is allowed to reveal next page.

1 comment:

Erin in Morro Bay said...

Yes, mysteries are wonderful. From Nancy, and Trixie Belden and Judy Bolton when I was growing up, to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers in early adulthood, to Elizabeth George and Donna Leon today, I've been a life-long mystery fan. My wife Margot is also. Since I'm a librarian I get first crack at the new ones coming in! It's interesting because I don't generally like puzzles - but give me a good mystery and I'm in heaven,
Erin in Morro Bay