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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Mystery of Mysteries

I've been reading a lot of Scandinavian mystery writers for the past year or so. Most of my life, I've been pretty uninterested in mysteries. Sure, I read bunches of Agatha Christie as a teenager, mostly because they were on my parents' basement bookshelves, but those were it. Later, pregnant with my first child, and afraid I'd never be able to read again, I got hooked on Elizabeth George. For the next ten years, I read a P.D. James now and then, tried a Patricia Cornwall (meh), but stuck to my major interests, contemporary realistic fiction and 18th and 19th Century British lit. Then my MIL introduced me to Tana French, and suddenly, mysteries were it. Tana French, Kate Atkinson. Thinky mysteries. Literary, thinky mysteries.

And then appeared Stieg Larsson. Neither thinky nor literary. More like out-of-control train rides. Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Henning Menkell. All different, all the same. Lots of burned out, jaded detectives with health problems due to poor diet, lack of sleep, smoking, and drinking. Why, I ask you, do I read them? Why?

Why? Maybe in part because I'm amazed by the human body's endurance. Considering how I've reacted to the stress of uprooting myself and family from a place I was enmeshed, to a job search, and to an adjustment to a life I'm still unsure I want, I see, feel, and know the physical and mental ravages of stress. Maybe I like to read about these burned out messes of detectives because they reassure me by enduring so much more than I have.

There is more to it, though. Yes, the stories are compelling, and plot-driven narratives are a lot like movie thrillers: pure escapism. But there are so many forms of escapism -- somatic illnesses, chic-lit, leafing through home decor magazines -- that I wonder why I choose this form now. Especially since I really dislike descriptions of violence, and these books seem to ratchet-up the horrific manner of death with each publication. Nary a one contains a single homicide. They're all double, triple, serial murders.

Shall I tell you my theory? It's because of the value placed therein on human life. I'm stating a paradox, considering how easily and emotionlessly these authors dispose of their victims. Furthermore, their protagonists are hardly models of emotional health. Therefore the general world-view promulgated by these authors is fairly grim. Nevertheless, their detectives (or as in Larrson, their de-facto detectives),  will do anything to solve these mysteries, at the risk of destroying themselves. As I read these narratives, I am filled with reassurance that people still place that much value on a single life.

I think at this time in my life, filled with massive evidence of the general ineffectiveness of one individual against the blind forces of nature and humanity, I am reassured to find that the individual does matter. So I read.

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