I have to admit I’ve been stressed for about . . . three and a half years. Bernie Sanders said recently that the current health crisis is “on the scale of major war,” but I’ve felt battle-scarred, mostly by tweet, for some time now. And now, thanks to COVID-19, I’m in exile: our schools have closed for, at a minimum, a month, and we are being advised to socially distance ourselves from others. As a single man, this poses a certain set of problems, and I can only imagine that those of you with families might be eyeing each other askance, so that when the kids come home their mothers have a little more tremor in their voices when they ask, “Where have you been?”
“Who . . . us?!?”
Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun, and I imagine that this is what it must have felt like for people from, say, 1914 to 1922. First, you had your world war ravaging Europe, taking the lives of 20 – 22 million world citizens and wounding about the same number. Then, in 1918, the boys came marching home – bringing with them a strain of H1N1 influenza that infected one third of the world’s population and killed between twenty and fifty million people. This was followed by a global depression that plunged world economies into despair for two years.
But you know what people did during these times? They knuckled down and worked together to get through. They set up support systems for the poor. They figured out how to help the veterans of the first war, and they rationed their lives away to provide for the soldiers of the second. Everyone did his bit, and they rallied together, feeling more nationalistic fervor than ever before because they were involved in a joint effort to create a better world.
And they read murder mysteries.
I mean it! You have to give some credit for the renaissance period of crime fiction known as the Golden Age to these social horrors. And what is so ironic is that the reason people snapped up classic crime novels in droves is the very reason that all too many modern snarks dismiss them: by essentially reducing a cataclysmic event to a puzzle – and then solving it – mysteries brought solace, even a sense of empowerment, to people afraid of walking out their doors for fear of running into a mortar shell or a killer bug.
Most of the credit for this has to go to the Brits, a “stiff-upper-lip” culture to begin with, right? Agatha Christie wrote some of her best books while waiting the war out in London and enduring one blitz attack after another. Even her most nihilistic book, And Then There Were None (1939), where EVERYONE dies, contains profoundly mundane scenes of coping, where people sit in parlors, eating cold tongue and sipping sherry, engaging in small talk as they inwardly ponder: “which of them? . . . which of them?”
As I sit here in my cozy little home, trying to cope with so many unknowable things in our collective future, I’m also trying to learn from the past. This COVID situation counts as an existential crisis, but I’ve had those before. At age 11, my family moved to, what became for me, a hostile environment: a house in permanent fog and a school where every student despised me. That’s when I graduated from The Hardy Boys to Hercule Poirot. (Thankfully, we moved a year later; equally thankfully, the reading habit remained.) The big crime came at the age of 40, a combination of ending a relationship with a truly lovely man and of realizing my mortality.
At that point, Carr, Queen and Christie weren’t enough, so I sought help from a therapist. I told him that every morning, when I stepped into the shower, I felt this suffocating fear of death. That dear guy told me that, while he couldn’t remove the fact of death, he could help me deal with the fear. And much of that has to do with living your life, savoring the present, engaging with others, yes, but finding what’s good in yourself, too, and enjoying that.
One of the things I have found I like about myself is the way I relate to mysteries. I love to read them. I want to write them, but for now I write about them. Some people try and solve each crime novel they read. So do I, to a certain extent, but what is so fascinating is that I would much prefer to be fooled. On the most superficial level, this involves the delight I feel in being surprised. But if you want to get heavy about it for a minute, I think it shows personal growth since I turned forty. As a kid, I would actually make notes as I read and try desperately to match wits with the detective. And now, because Ronald the Therapist taught me some stuff, I am able to give myself over to fate, as it were: read, ponder, enjoy.
This is not to say I’m discouraging all you prospective armchair detectives out there. For those who like their clues parsed out frequently, their bodies stuffed to the gills with undetectable poisons, and a nice “Challenge to the Reader” placed in the appropriate slot, there are myriad pleasures awaiting you.
Below, I have made some suggestions to suit different types of people. The only caveat is that you must put aside Netflix for a few hours and actually read!
IF YOU’RE CURRENTLY EMBRACING THE #METOO MOVEMENT . . . then you must seek out the Queens of Crime. The empowering fact that mystery writing has always been an especially successful occupation for women aside, the leading female lights of the genre do it so well – and they do it in contrasting ways. Nobody crafts better puzzles and juxtaposes the cozy with the criminal to better effect than Christie. Turn to Dorothy Sayers for sophisticated wit, to Ngaio Marsh for homespun procedurals in villages or theatres, to Christianna Brand for heartbreaking deviltry. The abundance of interesting female characters – from the brilliance in fichu of Miss Jane Marple to the intellect and heart of Harriet Vane, to the flawed brilliance of the entire cast of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes (except, sadly, for Miss P. herself), women writers have created amazing heroines and villainesses who are the better of any man (except Hercule Poirot!)
IF YOU’RE A MAN’S MAN AND WOULD RATHER MESS AROUND IN THE GARAGE WITH GADGETS . . . welcome to the world of impossible crime, where science is used for evil purposes and where a man with a good head on his shoulders can kill anyone he likes with a piece of string, a wad of gum, and access to his nephew’s chemistry set. Authors like John Dickson Carr, Clayton Rawson, John Rhode and Brian Flynn revel in stories where the “what” and the “how” are as riveting as the “who.” Remember when your mom used to yell at you for tracking muddy footprints in the house? Meet a bunch of killers who have figured out how to perform horrific acts without leaving a trace! Do you like to tinker with cars? Well, you’re not alone – although your reasons for tinkering might differ from those of the killer in The Corpse in the Car.
IF YOU’RE CUH-RAAAZZY FOR ROMANCE BUT LONG TO EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS . . . believe it or not, there are mysteries for you. Even though most of the unofficial rule makers frown upon love intruding in their mysteries, it’s almost always there. Patricia Wentworth had a rule that certain characters were sacrosanct, and that included lovers. That young couple in trouble at the beginning of any Miss Silver novel will always be together in the end. (Not so much in Christie, so beware!) There are also some wonderful sleuthing couples for you to savor, from Tommy and Tuppence to Harriet Vane and her Lord Peter. Patrick Quentin wrote many series, and the best chronicles the tumultuous relationship between Peter and Iris Duluth. Kelley Roos makes you both laugh and wonder in the many exploits of Jeff and Haila Troy, while Delano Ames provides the same pleasures with Jane and Dagobert Brown. Ironically, one of the most romantic pairs came from the cynical pen of Dashiell Hammett, and while Nick and Nora Charles only appeared in one novel, The Thin Man (1933), they showed up in six films – and Hammett had a strong hand in developing the first three.
IF YOU ARE A CHILD OR TEENAGER AND YOUR MOM SAID “CORONAVIRUS, SHMARONAVIRUS, YOU KIDS ARE GETTING IN MY HAIR, SO GO TO THE MALL” AND YOU WENT TO THE MALL AND FOUND THAT EVERY STORE WAS CLOSED, AS WAS THE MOVIE THEATRE, AS WAS THE STARBUCKS, AND YOU GOT SPOOKED AND CAME HOME AND FOUND YOURSELVES PERUSING THE BLOG OF AN ANCIENT MAN . . . I got you covered. There are wonderful mysteries for young people: the Five Find-Outers series by Enid Blyton, a true gateway drug (Ewwwwww! He said “drugs!”) into grown up mysteries; the Three Investigators by a number of authors, starting with Robert Arthur, a series connected to the name of Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies you should watch as well; the modern but smartly old-fashioned salutes to the Golden Age by Robin Stevens in the Murder Most Ladylike series; and . . . oh hell, kids, I started reading Christie at eleven! Just dive right in!
The Mysterious Bookshop, a New York treasure trove!
There are mystery writers for everyone! For those who like to explore the minutiae of detective work, there’s Freeman Wills Crofts, who celebrates his hundredth anniversary of publication this year! For kooky puzzles with eccentric characters and labyrinthine solutions, there are Ellery Queen (at least the early period), Anthony Boucher, and S.S. Van Dine, or the glorious shin honkaku mysteries of Soji Shimada, Seicho Matsumoto, Yukito Ayatsuji . . . well, anyone who has been translated! If you like to carry a gun and use the term “dame” loosely, a world of pulp fiction awaits you. If you’re more into the psychological aspects of crime, check out Helen McCloy or Margaret Millar. And if you’re looking for a lengthy series of novels with an endearing set of regular characters you can fall in love with, try Rex Stout or Erle Stanley Gardner.
And if you only want to read living authors but want to sample those who create modern mysteries that still pay homage to the past, check out Margot Kinburg, Christine Poulson, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Paul Halter, Martin Edwards, and James Scott Byrnside.
Whatever you do, for the foreseeable future, stay safe out there. Reach out to others who may feel isolated, even if it’s through social media, e-mail, the comments section of a man’s blog, or that old stand-by that no one uses except my mom, the telephone. Mysteries are a tried-and-true diversion, highly recommended. But in the end, we only have each other. As a commentator said this morning, after the shock of 9/11 settled in, we could turn and hug each other and say, “We’re going to get through this. We’re going to be alright.”
Well, now, it’s better if we not hug for a while. So allow me to send you all a virtual elbow bump and a reminder:
We’re going to get through this.
We’re going to be alright.
Wishing you all good health and good reading.