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Voices / Column

The Game is Afoot


I am not a ghoul.

In real life, the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen have been close relatives in boxes — and those were disquieting experiences that I would rather not repeat.

Yet you might as well make “Murder” my middle name.

I am one of those poor souls who is obsessed with detective fiction, a genre that barely qualifies as literature. (Yet, critics, what about Collins, Poe, Hammett, or Chandler?)

My husband accuses me of lusting for dead bodies, but that’s not why I read these books.

And when I say I “read these books,” I mean that there aren’t more than a handful by Robert B. Parker that I haven’t read — and he wrote almost 70 of them. Dick Francis? P.D. James? Mickey Spillane? Agatha Christie? Sara Paretsky? All of the above.

I’ve studied Venice with Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti, Rome with Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, New Jersey with Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, Yorkshire with Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, the Scottish highlands with M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth, and Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. I’m now learning Edinburgh with Ian Rankin’s John Rebus.

After I finish a book, I miss the main characters and the worlds their talented authors have created for them. So I open another book.

But I don’t read detective fiction solely for the characters or their worlds.

* * *

Blame Arthur Conan Doyle for my addiction. When I first encountered Sherlock Holmes, I was a shy and observant middle school child for whom the conventional world of family, school, and community didn’t make much sense.

One Holmes story, and I was hooked. A brilliant detective? Check. Unconventional yet functional? Check. Didn’t fit in anywhere and didn’t care? Check. Logical? Check. Deductive reasoning? Check.

When Holmes said, in A Study in Scarlet, “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work,” I cheered.

But that’s not the reason I read mysteries now.

Detective fiction is a good way to explore the past. I recently started reading Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley mysteries. “The Rising of the Moon” is a brilliant book, drawing the reader into the mind of a 13-year-old boy and the working-class life of long-gone Britain. It was written in 1945 and still holds up beautifully.

Learning about the past is a lovely side effect of reading mysteries, but it’s not why I read them.

Mitchell, who lived from 1901 to 1983, wrote 66 Mrs. Bradley books and was one of the members of the famed British Detection Club, whose other members included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton wrote the oath they all took: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

The Detection Club had strict rules for writers.

All the clues must be laid in front of the reader. Love should play no part in the story because “It confused the narrative and dammed the flow of pure reason.” The detective should never turn out to be the murderer.

All these rules and many more, of course, were violated at one time or another.

In 1977, Mitchell wrote an essay entitled “The Most Asked Question: Why Do People Read Detective Stories?"

"People read them because other people write them,” Mitchell wrote. “Why do other people write them? Well, according to Dr. Samuel Johnson, no man ever wrote who did not write for money.”

Some people scorn detective fiction as “a form of escapist literature,” she said, but that is not true.

“The detective story addict is not content to sit back and enjoy what is called ‘a cozy read.’ For full enjoyment of the story, the reader needs to use his brains. A problem has been set before him, and the true addict obtains pleasure from doing his best to solve it... Their writers must tidy up the loose ends; must supply a logical solution to the problem they have posed; must also, to hold the reader’s attention, combine the primitive lust and energy of the hunter with the cold logic of the scholarly mind.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s not why I read mysteries.

* * *

Then why do I read them?

Because the world is a dark and fearful place where atrocities are committed daily in the name of power, greed, lust, and religion.

Countries offer spurious reasons to go to war. Tyrants oppress their people. A right-wing anti-Muslim lunatic thinks it’s OK to kill children. Sharia law represses women, and the Taliban kills civilians to enforce it.

Hedge fund traders amass ever larger amounts of wealth as more and more people lose their jobs. My own government wants to take away my 94-year-old mother’s Social Security check and chuck her out into the street.

Living in a world where the Golden Rule is violated daily, where peace, justice, and reason are trampled upon, and where my outrage at man’s inhumanity to man tears me apart, a single murder — but only in a book — represents a tear in the fabric of a moral life that can be repaired if people care.

I read to see, at least in fiction, the killer found, caught, and punished and the world made whole again.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #120 (Wednesday, September 28, 2011).

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