Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Nothing Sends Me Away like a Classic `Whodunit'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Nothing Sends Me Away like a Classic `Whodunit'

Article excerpt

AS a child, I discovered that reading mysteries was a good way to block out the world. That's not why I read them, but it turned out to be a pleasant side effect. Lying in the lawn chair on the patio, a glass of lemonade at my side, I devoured stacks of Nancy Drews.

It didn't take long for the lawn chair, the patio, and my entire 9-year-old Southern California life to fade to black. Maybe a sentence or two. Life would swirl around me, brothers playing ball, parents gardening, the sun beating down on the places where the shade wasn't. But I heard nothing, saw nothing. I was gone - off to the cool, leafy East Coast (I presumed) suburb, tootling around in my blue roadster, with a comforting $5 bill in the glove compartment for emergencies.

Often it would take five calls for dinner before they'd penetrate. Then I'd get up, resentful, unhappy at being wrenched from my womb of suspense. It's not easy to switch from being a brave 18-year-old walking through secret tunnels to being nine and having to eat your peas.

Later there was a long span of mystery-less years when I was reading textbooks of one sort or another, then a decade of plays while I was an actress, then short stories. None of them ever had the capacity to send me away like mysteries did. I'm not sure what it is about them that yanks me so completely out of my world. It might be that they demand so much of those who read them.

A good mystery writer throws out an implicit challenge in every book - "I dare you to keep up with me." Who can resist that? So there you go, wondering if the slightly too-long glance between Mr. X and Mrs. Y that Mrs. X happened to see has anything to do with the fact that Mrs. Y ends up falling overboard. You have to keep track of every glance, every object, and know what the characters are up to at all times.

P.D. James has a chart showing where each character is every 10 minutes around the time of the murder. I'm starting to think that I should too. All the years I've spent reading mysteries, I still can't figure out who did it before the writer deigns to tell me. About halfway through I give up watching for clues like a sentry and just let them flow by, like scenery past a tourist. It's nice to have a relationship with a book that works just as well if you're paying lots of attention or just cruising. If it's a good plot, you can't get lost.

That's one thing, incidentally, that mysteries have over a lot of current fiction: real full-blooded plot and characters. For awhile now, short stories have been peopled with bland characters who drifted from mate to mate, job to job. Not a whole lot happens: a small moment of illumination, maybe. Often something that looks like a small moment of illumination is really just a small moment. In many of these stories, I sensed the characters' fastidious disdain for emotion. …

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