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It seems like the pandemic has brought out a lot of dirty little secrets. Like, since we might be dead tomorrow, why not come clean about stuff? My secret might not be so dirty, but it’s one I’ve tried to gloss over, avoid labelling, gently keep from my nearest and dearest, you know, all those slippery phrases addicts use. The truth is, I’m a mystery-reader addict.
There, I’ve said it! All those times I’ve feigned interest in Booker-prize winning novels, accepted “good books” from my uber-literate friends or bought the latest Canada Reads choice and placed it proudly on my coffee table, fully intending to dive into it and be part of the smart reading crowd, tucked away inside my backpack or stacked on my real reading pile beside my bed, has been a mystery.
I love them all. The ones with brooding Scottish detectives, the bloody Scandinavian thrillers, the puzzles that take place on strangely isolated islands or castles or ocean liners. (Why are phones so easy to cut off in those places? I’ve never yet been unable to make a call – from anywhere.) Then there’s the joy of discovering of a new mystery series. A detective. A setting that recurs and has an abnormally high number of murders and crimes occurring within it. (England, how can you withstand so many killers in so many adorably quaint villages?) Lately, there has been a rise in atmospheric, domestic mysteries. Women write a lot of these. They’re great. They’re also often quite disturbing. For a while, I couldn’t read them. There were just too many untrustworthy relationships in them. So much cheating and plotting and back-stabbing. It was so mean and made me think too much of the people and relationships around me. I don’t want my mysteries to come so close to my life or the people in it. Mysteries aren’t meant to be like the real world, that’s what literature is for.
The problem is, I come from a literate family. My father was a journalist. My mother was a teacher and a writer. I became a writer and a teacher and a teacher-librarian. For years I had to direct students to “good books” in the school libraries where I worked. English teachers – not all, but many – didn’t want their students reading trash. Many of their students looked so sad or suffering or just plain bored. After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Like the worst kind of drug pusher I’d lower my voice, angle a student toward the genre section and say, “Hey, ya wanna try something really good? Ever heard of Agatha Christie?”
Oh yeah, And Then There Were None never let me down.
Right now, when everything has let us down and there is absolutely no certainty in the world and true pleasures are few and far between, what has saved me, what has given me the most pleasure in my monotonous locked-down life, isn’t reading great literature, it’s reading mysteries. And I think I know why.
In mysteries, there are good guys and bad guys. There is a puzzle. There is (almost always) a resolution. Things fit together. There is an explanation for what happened and why. It can be scary or creepy or silly or clever but in the end, there is a finish. A period. A decisive conclusion.
Compare this to the ever-changing, never-ending world of COVID-19. There are good guys – every health care worker who has put his or her life on the line to try to save someone’s life, or just hold their hand in the face of fear and sorrow and absence. And there are bad guys – those crazy germs themselves who, just like the trickiest kind of killers, manage to sneak around our best defences to deliver a fatal blow when we’re least expecting it.
But after that it gets a lot murkier.
In the wildest, wackiest mysteries there is almost always an explanation for why the killer did what he or she did. A secret horror dating back to childhood, an unintended insult from school with a long-harbored grudge, a cheating spouse, an unrequited love, an accident that led to a horrifying physical deformity that led to a desire to lash out at everyone lucky enough to still be good looking! You get it. Something either logical or kind of crazily illogical, but still something with a starting point, and thus, an endpoint. Figure out the puzzle of why the killer acted the way he/she did and you can find that endpoint. The period. The resolution that ends it.
But COVID-19 – what’s the puzzle there? What’s the weird or wacky motivation that will provide the hard-working, if slightly depressed, dark and brooding detective with the clues to solve the mystery?
(Dr. Bonnie Henry should clearly play the role of heroic detective, but dark and brooding? It’s just not in her.)
The world is too hard right now. There are no neat and tidy resolutions to be had. I cannot read anything thoughtful or speculative or too difficult. I have “good books” sitting on my shelf right now. They will be remaining there for the foreseeable future. I know they are good for me. I promise I will try to read them again. Sometime. In the future. But for now, I am embracing the truth about myself.
My name is Jane and I read mysteries.
Jane Bradley lives in Vancouver.
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