Saturday, March 26, 2016
The Writing Life
by Carolyn Hart
When I was eleven, I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. I had no idea I would end up devoting my life to murder.
I worked on school newspapers and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma, back in the days of hot type, pica poles, and Speed Graphics. In j-school, I wore a trench coat, smoked Chesterfields (successfully discarded many years ago) and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins. But, as the adage informs, Man proposes, God disposes.
I met a young law student, we married, and I worked on a local newspaper, then for public information at the university. After we started our family, I quit work and stayed home. This was before the days when young women were expected to work full-time, have a family, and bake cookies for the school sale and climb the Matterhorn in their leisure moments.
I missed writing. I didn’t want to go back to reporting because of the long hours. That’s when I first thought about writing fiction. In The Writer magazine, I saw an announcement of a contest for a mystery for girls aged 8 to 12. I adored Nancy Drew and I decided to give it a try. THE SECRET OF THE CELLARS won the contest and was published in 1964. I’ve written children’s mysteries, young adult suspense novels, and dozens adult mystery or suspense novels. I also write the GHOST AT WORK series. The late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous redheaded ghost returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, and - in a fiery finale - rescues a child who knows too much. I have never had more fun writing a book.
So many books. All of them mysteries.
"When will you write a real book?"
"Why do you want to write about murder?"
When asked these questions at a book talk, I know immediately that the questioners don’t read mysteries. Murder is never the point of the mystery. Mysteries are about the messes people make of their lives and how they cope.
Mysteries captured my heart when I read my first Nancy Drew. I was thrilled by the challenges posed for Nancy Drew and for Frank and Joe Hardy, absorbed by the puzzles, and inspired by their courage and devotion to justice. Nancy’s snazzy roadster, amazing independence, and handsome Ned were also a plus. As for serious Frank and fun-loving Joe, who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? I always think of Max Darling, Annie’s handsome blond husband, as Joe Hardy all grown up and sexy as hell.
Suspense, a puzzle, and courage, these are the hallmarks of the mystery. However, the mystery offers even more to adult readers.
There are two kinds of mysteries, the crime novel and the traditional mystery.
The crime novel features Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. The crime novel is the story of an honorable man or woman who tries to remain uncorrupted in a corrupt world. It is the story of the protagonist and not of the murders that are solved. These books are about the quest for honor.
My own particular love is the traditional mystery. These books are sometimes dismissed by devotees of the crime novel as unrealistic, "cozy" little stories of drawing room crimes in little villages.
Agatha Christie, whose books have now sold in excess of two billion, understood reality. There may not be a body in the drawing room, but there will always be pain and passion, heartbreak and violence, despair and fury, whether in a village or a metropolis. Christie knew life as most readers live it, ordinary, unremarkable, and fraught with emotion.
Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. In the play, tradesfair audiences saw graphic representations of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is what today’s mysteries offer in a more sophisticated guise.
The sleuth in the traditional mystery explores the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. In trying to solve the crime, Annie Darling or my new sleuth, the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, search out the reasons for murder by exploring the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. The detective wants to know what caused the turmoil in these lives. Readers extrapolate the lessons observed in fiction for their own use, for their own lives. If this, Dear Reader, is how you treat others . . .
Thankfully, everyday dramas do not usually end in murder, but violent emotions caused by fractured relationships corrode the lives of all involved, often forever. This is what the traditional mystery is all about. The traditional mystery focuses on the intimate, destructive, frightening secrets hidden beneath the seemingly placid surface. Readers know the jealous mother, the miserly uncle, the impossible boss, the belittling friend, the woman who confuses sex with love, the selfish sister.
What could be more humdrum than everyday life as most of us live it? Aren’t those seemingly lighthearted, civilized tales of murder nonsense?
No. They probe personal passions. Nothing can be more powerful than jealousy, anger, hatred, lust, and fear.
It is how these emotions destroy lives that fascinates the readers and writers of traditional mysteries. The crime of murder is a dramatic exaggeration of the misery created by lives that succumb to sin.
I’ve spent a lifetime with murder, even though I can never read accounts of true crime. I find them too harrowing because behind the violent acts I always see the heartbreak of failed humans. In the books, I am trying to understand what created the passions that destroy and offering homage to the detective who wants to bring peace and understanding.
Even though by now the body count in my many books is horrific, I am grateful for my life with murder. It has put me in the best of company. Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness. They believe in justice, decency, and goodness.
Every day we see proof that evil often triumphs. Yet we yearn to live in a good, just, and decent world. There is a world where goodness triumphs, where justice is served, where decency is celebrated, the world of the mystery.
(Article orginally published in the Washington Post)