Thursday, September 27, 2007

Read A Mystery, Get A Life

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a reader and a writer, I love a mystery. But why? Do I love it for the puzzle, the slow unfolding of the clues and evidence that will show me at the end who done it, er, did it? Do I love it for the theme of wrongs righted and justice done? For the plot, the necessity that in every mystery, unlike certain literary novels, something happens? All of these are pleasures associated with mysteries. However, none of the above provides the burning desire to plunk my money down the minute a new hardcover by a favorite author comes out. I’m a hardcore series reader. I love to return to protagonists I already know and revisit the worlds they inhabit, both in new books and by rereading. And I’ve finally figured out what clinches the attraction.

On the back cover of Margaret Maron’s latest Judge Deborah Knott book, there’s a quote from a review by the Associated Press: “The considerable strength of Maron’s writing lies in giving her sleuth a life.” I read that and thought: “That’s IT!” Judge Deborah is one of my favorites for just that reason. I feel the same about Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak, and a number of others.

If I met Deborah or Sharon in real life, I think I’d get along with them just fine. I’ve certainly wished, if not for eleven brothers, at least for a family that got together to make music the way Deborah’s does. I’ve played the guitar since I was 13, and in my folksinging days, my family had a tendency not to pay much attention beyond asking why I couldn’t sing “something more cheerful.” Deborah herself might have liked my mother, who was a pioneering woman lawyer. As for Sharon, I can empathize with her slow transformation from Sixties free spirit with the All Souls Legal Cooperative to businesswoman with a heart and a terrific team.

Kate Shugak, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t think much of me. I’m not rugged enough for an Alaskan, especially someone like the ultra-competent and indomitable Kate. The one Alaskan I do know, a therapist from Kansas, hikes up glaciers in the rain on her lunch hour. When I visited a number of years ago, I couldn’t keep up. Kate (and presumably Stabenow) shares my taste in reading, though. She’d be great on DorothyL. She also has a fantastic bunch of friends.

I suspect those friendships are the key. Like many Americans of my generation, I hunger for community. I’ve had a taste of it at various times in my life, but time, my big-city location (I live in Manhattan), and the nature of life in the 21st century have left me with not only a diminished family, but also friends who are widely scattered and not known to each other. Each of these fictional heroines has a circle of friends, and vicariously, once I open the book, so do I.

1 comment:

paul lamb said...

I agree. Characters who are rooted in regular reality are far more appreciable than those who have some exotic aspect to their personality or who have some astonishing talent or lurid past (though I admit that even "regular folk" are complex creatures). A sleuth who is someone I might recognize from the neighborhood has more resonance for me than one who is exceptionally talented or freakishly insightful. Miss Marple or Mma Ramotswe rather than Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. I fear that authors who try to goose their characters with some oddball trait or past are letting the characters get in the way of the story. Maybe that's their intent, but I'm not going to lean toward their work.