I have loved to read for as long as I can remember, and I have a huge stack of books that occupy their own private rooms in my memory. But for me, there's always been something just a bit different about mysteries--something potent and a little dangerous. They call up an appetite that's not quite unsavory but certainly unrestrained. I know I'm not the only girl who devoured all the Nancy Drew books in my local library, and I remember long summer afternoons in the company of the Hardy Boys or the Secret Seven. At first I was in awe of the young detectives, but gradually I was walking the maze of danger with them, staying alert for clues.
Looking back, there's no denying those books were predictable and trite, but I feel curiously protective of them, and of my own eager young self. I think that's because I was doing a special kind of work when I was reading those mysteries. I was linking myself up with a character, but I was also looking at a world that didn't make sense and experiencing the vicarious pleasure of rearranging the pieces to explain it. Suspense and release, along with a healthy dose of self-congratulations if I arrived at the solution as quickly as my sleuth.
That heady rhythm of suspense and release fuels mysteries and crime fiction for adults too. But for me now, the best writing in the genre takes on the notion of the unexplained and gives it more texture. A mystery might be solved, a criminal might be apprehended--but some things remain inexplicable. We live in a world where people behave toward others with often violent disregard, and there is finally no way to make sense of that.
I just finished Bad Boy, Peter Robinson's latest Inspector Banks novel. It's a great example of what's possible when you entrust this genre to a masterful writer. The characters--both the ones we like and the ones we don't--are complex, often difficult. Inspector Alan Banks is likeable because he's a maverick with excellent intuition. But we like him also because he's familiar: he's a middle-aged man who continues to struggle with aftermath of divorce and the challenge of parenting adult children. He can be harsh with co-workers and lenient with himself. Occasionally he drinks too much. You could say he's a good but flawed man in a morally ambivalent world.
I suspect Robinson fits that description too, as do most of us. The difference is that Robinson has the discipline and skill and generosity of spirit that enables him to share his vision with the rest of us. I'm richer for it.
Charlene Diehl (Jenny Bisch)
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