Why Mysteries?

When I meet people at book events and give them my elevator speech (“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 people have of an English professor who wants to write the literary Great American Novel.

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 an energy and 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 a version of the truth, because the real story is a bit more complicated.

thumbprint.gifWhen 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, Saul Bellow and John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I wanted to write like they did, serious, important works.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and prepared for that life with the usual English degree. Once I graduated college, however, I found myself at complete loose ends. With little usable life experience to write about and almost no concrete plans for the future, I was temporarily stymied.

Added to which, my older brother was having drug problems that were worsening by the day, which caused nonstop chaos in the 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 was no longer 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 original 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.

IMG_0354.JPGWhen I came across the works of two Swedish 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 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.)

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.

At this particularly dreadful moment in history, when corruption seems widespread across our society, most especially at the highest levels of government, we need that kind 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 another character and see the world through those eyes, and help others understand that character’s world.

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. 

The Toby Preuss Mystery Series

Wait, what?

I can almost hear you saying, “I thought it was the MARTIN Preuss mystery series. What gives?”

It’s true, I’ve published six books in what I’ve called the Martin Preuss mystery series, featuring Martin Preuss as the main character. But an important part of his life—indeed, the most important part—is his son Toby.

Toby is his father’s remaining family member, for reasons I won’t go into here (no spoilers!). Toby is profoundly handicapped, born with cerebral palsy and a list of disabilities that fill a whole page of his yearly IEP (Individualized Education Program), including cognitive disabilities, seizures, visual impairment, scoliosis, and paraplegia. 

Though the teen-aged Toby lives in a group home because Preuss can’t take care of all his son’s needs, Preuss loves his son fiercely. They spend as much time together as possible, doing things Preuss knows his son enjoys— going to parties, to the movies, on walks, to the library, and so on.

I tried to make Toby a fully-formed fictional character, with wants and needs that he tries in his own way to make known. He likes to stay up late, he loves music, he relishes social occasions, he doesn’t like to have his face touched or wear hats, and he has infinite patience with the people who care for him.

Some people come away from the books loving Toby as much as his father does. But other readers—not expecting a mystery to be so, well, character-driven—are singularly unimpressed; one reviewer sniffed that there were “too many other characters” impacting the main character’s life and detracting from the story.

Since my first priority as a writer is telling a good story, why do these books spend so much time on Toby? 

Let me list several reasons why. 

First, as a long-time fan of mysteries and crime fiction, as well as what we think of as “literary fiction,” I have rarely seen an accurate, sympathetic portrait of a young man like Toby. I know of only one: the character Lydia in Jennifer Egan’s recent Manhattan Beach, but even that isn’t a mystery. 

This population has been invisible in both popular and literary fiction, as they have long been invisible in the broader society. I wanted to do something to change that.

So I started out having determined that I would include Toby, and I’d make him a rounded, well-developed character. He might have serious cognitive and physical limitations, but he loves his life, loves his father, appreciates his caregivers, and plays an important part in the plots of the books. 

I thought giving him a son like Toby would also deepen and humanize Preuss himself, and thereby give the books an emotional richness they might not otherwise have.

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Jamie Kril, the model for Toby Preuss

Second, Toby is a lovingly drawn portrait of my grandson Jamie, who is no longer with us; he died after I finished the first book but just before it was published. Writing about Toby helps keep Jamie alive. By remembering how he looked and sounded and acted, and endowing a fictional character with all his qualities, I can conjure up the sweet, loving child and keep him close to our hearts for a while longer.

Third, these books allow me to show readers what it means to parent children like Toby. Readers have told me how illuminating it was to discover what’s really involved in being the parent of a child with disabilities . . . the joys, the sorrows, the concerns, and most especially the immense satisfactions.

Writing about Toby, and showing how loving he is and how important he is in his father’s life, gives me the chance to celebrate his great gifts, and by extension the gifts of all the children and people like Toby and Jamie. Toby is a source of enormous comfort, joy, and wisdom for his father, as Jamie was for those of us who knew and loved him.

I also wanted to help readers understand what’s involved in Toby’s care, and by extension the care of all of the children who receive it with such strength and dedication by their teachers, aides, nurses, physicians, respiratory and occupational therapists, and the entire village of professionals who work together in this amazing effort. 

And finally, I wanted to show one of the most important lessons Martin Preuss learns from his son, which is also perhaps the hardest for any parent to learn, but particularly parents and caregivers of children as vulnerable as Toby: that he deserves to live his own life. 

At the end of the third book, Guilt in Hiding, Preuss takes Toby for a walk along Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, narrating for his son the variety of life that Toby is not able to see with his visual limitations: dragonflies darting around them, sparrows flying among the vegetation by the water’s edge, ducklings following their mother through the lily pads in a comical straight line. Preuss reflects:

“As much as he adored the child and knew he would protect him and keep him close for the rest of their lives . . . watching his son enjoying the life that teemed around him on his own terms, Preuss realized yet again that Toby possessed a distinct and autonomous individuality that was equivalent to anyone’s.”

Ultimately, the Martin Preuss series recognizes, accepts, and celebrates Toby’s “autonomous individuality.” We gain a special understanding of people like Toby by living inside them as we experience them through books, and that’s what I’ve tried to accomplish with Toby in my mystery series. 

As well as, of course, telling some great stories along the way.

Welcome to my new blog

Welcome to my new, improved blog.

I’ve been threatening to revamp the old blog for, well, years, and I’ve finally done it as a companion to upgrading my web site and the publication of the sixth Martin Preuss Mystery, Cold Dark Lies. Gone is the grunge theme (that seemed like a good idea at the time, but that made me feel sort of itchy the more I looked at it); here is what I hope is a cleaner, more reader-friendly visual style.

In the months to come, I’ll be making more-or-less regular entries about the writing life in general and my own writing in particular, posting reviews of books I’ve read that I think you’ll enjoy, and best of all inviting some of my writer friends to blog about subjects of interest to them.

My website, www.donaldlevin.com, is still live, and will continue to focus on my books. I invite you to follow this new blog for other kinds of materials.

 

 

Cold Dark Lies now available

CDL-Front Cover copy 2

My newest entry in the Martin Preuss series, Cold Dark Lies, is now available in print and Kindle.

Cold Dark Lies is a timely and engaging story, taking on the opioid crisis and gang violence, among other current issues. In the novel, when distraught Carrie Morrison hires private investigator Martin Preuss to find out how her younger brother wound up clinging to life in a suburban Detroit motel, the detective thinks the story will be a familiar one—a young man takes a walk on the wild side and pays a terrible price. But the deeper Preuss digs, the more he realizes that nothing is as it seems in the brother’s world of secrets and lies.

The Martin Preuss Mystery series has received stellar reviews from readers. Elizabeth Heiter, award-winning author of The Profiler series, called the fourth Preuss mystery, The Forgotten Child, “an engaging, emotional thriller that skillfully blends past and present.” Writer’s Digest called The Forgotten Child “riveting . . . relatable characters, deep intrigue, and beautifully written.” Peter Chiaramonte, author of No Journey’s End, called Levin’s previous books “superb storytelling.”

An award-winning fiction writer and poet, I am also the author of The House of Grins (Sewickley Press, 1992), a novel; and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005) and New Year’s Tangerine (Pudding House Press, 2007). I am Emeritus Professor of English and retired Dean of the Faculty at Marygrove College in Detroit. I live in Ferndale.

Cold Dark Lies is available on order through bookstores and online at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com, as well as directly from me.