My brother tried to cajole me into reading mysteries. He was a grand fan and I was a Disdainer. I thought that mysteries were a lowly genre, pooh. My brother started me off easy with the Robert B. Parker ones, the dialogue-filled Spenser novels that one could rip through in an afternoon. Surprising myself, I got kind of fond of Spenser and his sidekick, Hawk, and took plenty of them out of the library, filling up the other side of my bed with Parker’s books for an easy reach before dropping off to sleep.
Mark’s last cat, Poco, used to sleep in the Husband Position there but found he had to move to the bottom of the bed so as to share his space with Spenser and then later, with all of the others. The Ian Rankins, the Bill James, the John Harveys, the Michael Connellys, the P.D. James, the Ruth Rendells. Richard Price. Reginald Hill. Denise Mina. Minette Walters. James Lee Burke.
This was over twenty years ago. And now, I can’t imagine what life would be like without those mysteries.
When I’ve been unsettled I turned to author, Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, which, because he is Norwegian, I pronounced “Huull” inside my head, even if that could be argued with. (“Hole” is not a nice sound.) I have been unsettled often enough to have gone through every Nesbo that’s out there and wish he would get cracking on the next one.
And most of us know about the fine art of procrastination. Still, one cannot procrastinate all that well with the simple household arts. One has Standards. Dishes will get done, the floor will get vacuumed, beds will get made. But there is something about doing my taxes that cries out to me to abandon them right then and there for a Kurt Wallender mystery, chosen from the many that Henning Mankell was kind enough to write for me.
“They” went ahead and made a series of Wallender’s Swedish stories for PBS and chose Kenneth Branagh to play the part, which upset the casting department in my brain, but “they” did such a superb job on the setting and photography that I grudgingly accepted him. He was fine; he just wasn’t quite Swedish-looking enough for my tastes. And I never forgot that Kenneth Branagh had once been married to Emma Thompson. She is so lovely; why the split?
There’s blood and mayhem in the mystery novels, laid out on those dry, off-white pages often set in a Garamond typeface. Shrieks ring out, hair is pulled, bodies are found, some in awfully bad shape. Dark hallways fill up with scary footsteps—is it the protagonist on the hunt or is it the Wicked Fellow, about to commit murder?
However, household sounds break through my concentration and I must get up from my comfy chair and leave the fierce questions laying about on the pages until I can get back to them. (There’s a pool of blood, yet MisPers hasn’t found the victim—I like it that they call Missing Persons “MisPers” and will start calling my missing socks MisSocks.)
I go to Lunardi’s and get caught up in a self-inflicted debate over Triscuits or Wheat Thins and whether or not to wait until Paul Newman’s limeade goes on sale for thirty cents less. I have every confidence that I will find out who committed the crime in the book waiting on my desk. The last page will be a satisfying reward for the time spent. I don’t really think it’s the greedy hairdresser, but she works out and has a temper and she hasn’t cried over her missing fiancé at all.
I’m glad that I hardly ever guess the ending. I want the surprise. I want the author to outsmart me. They almost always do.
Without all of the mysteries, I might have read Moby Dick by now. Or Remembrances of Things Past, or Ulysses. Or, heavens, Anna Karenina. Surely I was on my way to these greats before my brother thrust that Robert B. Parker into my hands.
Thank heavens I read War and Peace. Or did I only see the PBS series? I’ll have to think about that. I did read a wonderful biography by Henri Troyat on Tolstoy, so that counts for something. I read a lot of Roddy Doyle and William Trevor and Colm Toibin, so I have a wee sense of Ireland, even without the Beckett and Joyce.
I want so much for the problems in my life to be solved.
I sneak into my head and bring along the hardboiled, depressed, rumpled, usually divorced, authority-questioning detectives and they Solve Problems, just not mine. They do it very cleanly. Not a splash of blood or gore lands on my pristine Lands End stretch pants.
Of course, without the mystery novels soothing my needs, over the years I could have, maybe, created some decent quilts. Solve those. Illustrated a book. Written a book. Learned to speak Spanish. But, no. I took the easy way out: I read who-dunits. Due to my lovely friendship with Bob Collin, my British friend, I also read LeCarre and learned about the Cambridge spies and the skullduggery regarding the Cold War through his rich and complex books.
Then I found John Banville and marveled at his semi-fictional take in The Untouchable about one of those spies, Anthony Blunt, who was the Queen’s art historian. Cheeky fellow, smack-dab in the midst of all that Royalness and being frightfully naughty with state secrets. Banville’s vocabulary was so rarefied that I found myself looking up words right and left. I believed that I was a great deal smarter after I’d read him, although I cannot recall now what those terribly interesting words meant and I’ll have to look them up all over again. “Glair, plumbeous, flocculent.”
Those were the ones.
This pastime I’ve taken up has not buffed up my social life. But it does provide a look that I’ve come to relish, the one that smile-creases a fellow mystery-lover’s face when I mention the latest Rankin or LeCarre or Mankell, the look that says, “Oh, yesss!”
The look that says my fellow addict has read it or will be trotting out to get it immediately, and we both know that a period of grand satisfaction has occurred or is on the way. And we may or may not discuss it—it doesn’t matter. We are in on something together; we do know that.
And there are also books on tape, those mysteries that are often read by British voices and play for me as I drive up the highway to San Francisco and home again. Who did it? Is it the so-called very good friend who dared speak of love and was savagely rebuffed? Will I know before I park the car in my driveway? Or will the next trip to Lunardi’s provide the answer?
Answers, fixes, solutions. So nice.