I am probably what you might call a middling mystery fan. A check of Goodreads shows that I’ve shelved 33 mysteries since 2011, which would suggest I read about four mysteries a year. Nevertheless, it is a genre I enjoy, and recently, I figured out one of the reasons why. The detectives.
This dawned on my while reviewing Fall of a Cosmonaut by Stuart M. Kaminsky. I realized that one of the reasons I was really enjoying the book was because of Chief Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov. Rostnikov combines something of a mystic’s sensibilities with strong relationships, shrewd observations, and bureaucratic savvy.
From Sherlock Holmes on, mystery writers have created series around a distinctive character. In our childhoods, many of us were fascinated by the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. My son had a fascination for a time with Encyclopedia Brown. For some of us, our introduction as adults to mystery came through one of Agatha Christie’s many mysteries with Hercule Poirot or kindly but observant Miss Marple. Perhaps it was Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, inspirations for many Fifties TV detectives. Others of us were dawn to Lord Peter Wimsey, rich, something of a dilettante, the archetypal English gentleman, eventually joined by Harriet Vane.
We had a season of reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries. In this case you got a whole entourage of daring sleuths–Amelia, Emerson and Ramses at the head. I’ve enjoyed the cerebral, art-loving British sleuths: P. D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Dalgliesh writes poetry and Morse loves the opera. More recently, I’ve been discovered an entirely different character in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, troubled by memories of Vietnam, the loss of his wife, and ghosts of the Civil War. He breaks all the rules, and yet solves cases and brings people to book. Not entirely sure what I think of him but he is intriguing. Then at the other end is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, whose spiritual insights into human nature combine with observational skills in solving crime. Then there are the gritty women like Kinsey Millhone and Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
I could go on and on and I’m sure I’ve omitted one of your favorites. I hope you will talk about him or her in your comments. Part of the delight in reading different mysteries is the sheer uniqueness of these very different characters. One of the things that hooks me into a good series is a character to whom I’m drawn. I especially enjoy writers whose characters grow in insight, self-understanding and depth over time. Lord Peter Wimsey and Adam Dalgliesh stand out to me as examples.
There is a common element that I think draws me as well. It is a quality of attentiveness. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes remarks at one point, “You see, but you do not observe.” It seems that all good detectives notice what others miss, perhaps because of prejudice, haste, or distraction. It also seems that another quality I would emulate is a persistent curiosity. They keep observing, asking questions, tracking down threads. Remember Columbo’s “Just one more thing!” Then there is patience, a comfort with ambiguity that doesn’t force a solution when all the pieces are in place. I value that all these are people who take time to think and reflect–and then act when the time is ripe. They neither act without thinking, nor think without acting. Above all, each of these qualities are focused toward righting wrongs and making the world a bit more just.
All of these seem good qualities not only for detectives, but for life. After all, perhaps the greatest mystery is found in each one of our lives. There are depths in our own being that we can spend a life understanding, as is the case with any other person close to us–parents, spouses or partners, friends, colleagues and children. There is the mystery of discerning the path before us. Even if we believe in a God who guides us, it often takes attentiveness, curiosity, patience, thought, reflection, and pursuing justice to discern that path. Perhaps this is what I appreciate in reading detective mysteries–they remind me how to live.