So Why Mysteries?

[This week’s blog post brings back an oldie but a goodie from a few years ago. Enjoy!]

When I give people my elevator speech for the Martin Preuss mysteries (“This is a series of mysteries etc.”), one of the questions I often get is, “Do you have a background in law enforcement?” After I tell them no, I was an English professor and before that a professional writer, their follow-up question is often, “So why mysteries?”

While I understand the question comes out of genuine curiosity, I also suspect it has to do with the stereotype many people have of an English professor who wants to write the Great American Novel. And mysteries, of course, as “genre fiction,” don’t qualify.

What I typically tell people is a condensed version of the truth: I’ve always been drawn to the mystery form, ever since I was a little boy when I would make up my own episodes of Dragnet. There is a vitality in the mystery that I find more compelling than in “literary” work, which tends toward an interiority, dare I say pretentiousness, that is for me less interesting.

(Sorry, I can’t keep myself from using those quotes around “literary.”)

I say that’s a version of the truth, because the real story is a bit more complicated.

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When I was young, I had my own high-fallutin’ literary pretensions. The authors that I read, the ones who were doing what I thought of as the real heavy lifting of literature, were the novelists . . . Tolstoy and Jane Austen, James Joyce, Saul Bellow and John Updike and Bernard Malamud and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I wanted to write what they did: serious, important works.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and I prepared for that life in the usual way: took an English degree, read widely, and so on. Once I graduated college, however, I found myself at complete loose ends. With little usable life experience to write about (a story for another time) and no concrete plans for the future, I was temporarily stymied.

Added to which, at the time my older brother was having drug problems that were worsening by the day, which caused nonstop chaos in my family. It was not a pleasant time.

During summers while in college, I had a job as a movie theatre assistant manager, and when I graduated, my summer job turned full-time; the miserable, alienated college student became a miserable, alienated theatre manager. I took refuge from the disorder of my life in the seedy darkness of movie theatres at night, and in clean, well-lighted libraries during the day, trying to write but also relearning how to read for enjoyment again.

I found myself going back to reading the kinds of books I used to love: mysteries and detective stories. I discovered a world of new authors. I read through Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and especially Ross Macdonald. Except I wasn’t reading them for the mysteries or the puzzles, which didn’t interest me, but rather for what I needed at the time: some notion of how to live.

To me it felt like the detectives in the books I read were virtuous in the old Elizabethan sense of confronting and controlling experience. They were good men and women struggling to live well in a corrupt world, facing down the turmoil and tumult of that world—much as I was trying to do with my own life . . . except they were succeeding, unlike me (or so I felt).

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When in the 70s I came across the works of two Swedish co-authors, Maj Sjoval and Per Wahloo, I knew I had discovered something else that was important about mysteries. The authors of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals, Sjoval and Wahloo had consciously set out to use the detective novel format to comment on changes in their society. I realized that, far from being fluff, good mysteries could have as much depth to them as the most literary novel—in addition to being enjoyable, energetic reads. (The name of my main character, Martin Preuss, is partly an homage to Sjoval and Wahloo’s detective, Martin Beck.)

The more I read, the more I saw that good mysteries were novels of personality; great mysteries, said Henning Mankell, the Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series, were novels of society seen through the lens of crime. I saw how mysteries could be a powerful form for personal as well as social transformation.

Many years later, when I again started seriously writing long works of fiction after a long hiatus (yet another story for another time), mysteries were my natural go-to.

At this particularly dreadful moment in history, when corruption seems widespread across our society, most especially at the highest levels of government, and baser instincts seem to reign, we are badly in need of transformation.

We need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. If we’re going to survive, we need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

Writing mysteries is a way for me to do that. It allows me to enter the mind and heart of characters under the stresses of crime and see the world through those eyes, and help others understand that character’s world—and, ultimately, our own.

The great crime writer Don Winslow asks the question in his novels, “How do you live decently in an indecent world?” Mysteries help give me and my readers a way to test the tentative answers to that question that Martin Preuss arrives at throughout the pages of my books. 

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

This is one of my older poems. I wrote the draft of it on a plane on the way to Boston in 2002 to visit cousins and an elderly uncle whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was the first time I had flown since 9/11.

I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was plenty uneasy.

Flying is not my favorite activity under the best of circumstances. But I was flying in the near-aftermath of the terror attacks, when everybody was on edge, and lots of other things down on the planet Earth below me made it seem as though order was collapsing.

This was the time when a sniper in a blue Caprice was shooting people randomly on Washington DC highways. Chechen rebels held 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, and the attempt to rescue them went horribly wrong. Bombs were routinely going off on Israeli busses.

The world seemed a tad nuts.

As it happened, I had assigned Jane Austen’s Emma to my Intro to Graduate Studies students that semester. I brought the book along to reread—and as we always say literature does, it took me out of myself and my worries and transported me into Austen’s world.

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If you’ve read Austen, you know it’s very different from our own. Though her world was also in transition, her characters negotiated the changes with civility and grace

I tried to capture the differences—along with my yearning for a more orderly world—in the poem.

At the time, it seemed as if things couldn’t get any crazier.

Except today, 2020 says, “Hold my beer.”

There’s a new movie of Emma out, and I saw it last night. It was a decent translation of the book to film, with the exception of some casting choices I took issue with. (Note to producers: next time switch the actors who play Knightley and Robert Martin; if you’re going to use the great Bill Nighy, give him more to do).

It reminded me again why great novels like Emma hardly ever make great movies: novels are all about language, and no film can do justice to the sparkling wit of Austen.

But shifting into Austen’s world is still a serene experience as disease, financial catastrophe, corruption, and stupidity rage outside the darkened theatre.

It helps us realize that once there were people who were civil and agreeable to each other. And maybe there will be again.

Hope you enjoy “Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet.”

 

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

A voice from the flight deck mumbles—something

about the weather in Boston—as the plane lumbers

into the dawning day above it all,

the sniper’s nest in the blue Caprice, endless

wars, dead hostages, suicide bombers

blowing nailed starbursts through sunblind busses.

 

Jane, how I welcome your astringent lines, sly

as a measured throw of cards on green felt tables,

the ordered games of Hartfield after dinner

while poor cold Woodhouse worries over the dangers

of rich cakes, and pretty Emma schemes.

Sealed in steel dread six miles up, I enter

your safe art gladly, shaking the dust

of crumbling civilizations off my boot-soles.

[© 2005 Donald Levin. A version of this poem appeared in my poetry book, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005; reprinted in Detroit Metro Times, November 23, 2005).]