With apologies to the Beatles, when I find myself in times of trouble — mysteries, they comfort me.
I return to mysteries because when life doesn’t make sense, they are the best sort of self-help. I may not be able to solve a worldwide pandemic or the puzzling behavior of a loved one, but it soothes my soul when a detective wraps up a puzzle with a soliloquy and a hearty “Ah ha!”
But there’s another reason I like mysteries: the monsters. Not the furry under-the-bed sort, but those belonging to human hearts more like my own than I’d like to admit.
With further apologies to G.K. Chesterton, allow me to paraphrase my favorite quote by him, replacing the word “dragons” with “monsters”:
Fairy tales do not tell children that [monsters] exist. Children already know that [monsters] exist. Fairy tales tell children the [monsters] can be killed.”
Like a fairy tale, a satisfying mystery sees the monster exposed and, if not killed, at least defeated. Sometimes it’s not a knight with a sword or a detective with a mustache who does the deed but a woman who has been traumatized by death and learns to stand up to it ever after. Whodunnit? And why? To know the answer, we have to know each other, as William Stafford reminds us in the opening of A Ritual to Read to Read to Each Other:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
Since the new year I’ve read three mysteries that I keep returning to, rereading my notes and highlights. Each story wrestles with a different sort of monster (often more than one).
No one is murdered in Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers, published in 1935, but several instances of lewd graffiti demand an investigation. Detective novelist Harriet Vane must look with clear eyes at the faculty of the women’s college she attended and at herself. If Vane were a real person, I’d stalk her on Twitter, though I’m sure she couldn’t be bothered with such a silly time-waster. As a writer approaching this real-life mystery, she “felt the novelist’s malicious enjoyment in a foolish situation.” She turned “the incidents of the last hour into a scene in a book (as is the novelist’s unpleasant habit).” And she admitted, “But I should scrub floors very badly, and I write detective stories rather well.” Her insights into humanity’s monsters, both petty and profound, is genius and quite fun.
A Thief of Time, published in 1988 by Tony Hillerman, is part of a series featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee. In this book they are on a missing persons case. Leaphorn has just lost his wife, Emma, and his heartache over her loss is his biggest monster. Investigating one mystery leads to another and leads the duo back to one from the past, in which our heroes discover that monsters — even those who kill — are not always what they seem. The book also has some of the best descriptions of the American West I’ve ever read, including Leaphorn’s self-consciousness at buying an umbrella, “thinking he would own the only umbrella in Window Rock, and perhaps the only umbrella on the reservation, if not in all of Arizona.”
Finally, Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia, published in 2014, shares DNA with The Westing Game. The intricate plot asks the reader to walk in the shoes of a lost girl, a twin, another twin, a chaperone, a conductor, a prodigy, a concierge, and a mother. The story opens with a murder and ends with one of the above-listed characters finding solace in classic mysteries, by the likes of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, P.D. James, and Dashiell Hammett. Mystery becomes something first experienced, then read, and then written. In the process a monster is confined to the pages of a book, where it can do no more harm.
In the best mysteries we see the monster within and look a little more kindly on the monster without. Because monsters are everywhere. “Monsters exist because they are part of the divine plan,” it says in another mystery, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which I have just begun to read.
There will be an answer. Let it be.
Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems, Barbara Crooker (Why yes, I read this collection last month as well. It’s that good.)
Middle Grade and YA
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman (Also a bit of a mystery, also reminiscent of The Westing Game. The protagonist is 7 years old, so that’s why I’m putting it in this category, although it defies categorization.)
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Browse more from A Ritual to Read to Each Other
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro