“There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people…mystery writers and serial killers.”
The quotation was penned by Richard Castle, the pen name, perhaps, of Tom Straw, but not scripted by the Richard Castle who is a character on Castle, a show about a mystery writer turned detective. Ah, murder and fiction, and in this case, fictionalized fiction about murder. Amusing, diverting, and the rabbit hole into which hours of my life have been poured, but, and here’s the point of this piece, I’ve learned some significant lessons along the way, none of which have to do with poison, hatchets, or woodchippers.
I inherited the habit of bingeing on mysteries from my mother, who simply grabbed the next twenty mystery novels on the library’s shelf, moving alphabetically, row-by-row until the time came to begin harvesting again. I suppose she must have read other genres; she had worked in publishing with an inspiring editor. By the time I kept track, however, Eric Ambler still set the carousel in motion, and Rex Stout was always somewhere near the end. Her favorites, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers ended up in her permanent collection, as did Josephine Tey and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Mary Stewart crept in near the end, nudging her toward historical fiction if a mystery lived somewhere in its midst. I suppose I could have done my own shopping at the library, but the titles in her bi-weekly mystery bag – Death on the Nile, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The League of Frightened Men, The Man Who Could Not Shudder – irresistible, and so, I developed an appetite that has not been sated.
I have observed that detectives have to appear clever, but the best of them also have a distinctive intelligence that is frequently as disabling in their personal lives as it is necessary in their nabbing of a villain. Holmes was clearly somewhere on what is known as the spectrum, a savant with little in the way of easy exchange with ordinary humans. Hercule Poirot was capable of friendship, but as his pal, Captain Arthur Hastings observed, “The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” Boston Blackie could not quite shake off the habits he had developed as jewel thief, while Dr. Gideon Fell, corpulent master of “locked room mysteries” drank and ate far more than was good for him. Mike Hammer was a bit too willing to shoot first and ignore questions altogether, whereas Philo Vance was virtually agoraphobic, rarely leaving his comfortable armchair and the cultivation of his orchids. It goes without saying that many of the more contemporary sleuths somehow manage to close a case despite fumbling in a thick haze of alcohol and smoke.
I have spent quite a bit of time recently with Jo Nesbo’s detective, Harry Hole, whose name does not command immediate respect when pronounced with an American accent, but whose work is pretty darned impressive. Hole (Ho-leh as he’s known in Norway) is a mess, I mean a genuinely damaged alcoholic mess, who manages to pull himself together long enough to unwrap mysteries ordinary mortals could not solve. He’s intelligent, but also intuitive, sensing connections rather than rooting them out. Hole is not universally admired; he has a few loyal pals on the Oslo police force, but most find him contemptible, and they are not mistaken in expecting a royal dumpster dive from Harry at some point. Nonetheless, Hole is a remarkable mind, a decent man who has, in addition, developed a manner of responding to virtually any situation that I have found extraordinarily helpful.
No matter how provocative, insulting, demeaning, encouraging, ridiculous the statement, Harry almost always responds with a sub vocalized, “Hmmmm”. It’s genius, really; Harry acknowledges that he’s heard whatever twaddle has been served up without expressing affirmation, dismissal, appreciation, or contempt. In fact, the more egregiously unfortunate the statement, the more judiciously Harry hmmms. Let’s not give Harry too much credit for judicious behavior, he is capable of stunning stupidity in his personal life, but even there, he offers a calming hmmm when up against what could be familial Armageddon.
Conversations in my own sphere are equally fraught with menace, especially as I am now teaching through the adult education arm of Southern Oregon University. My classes invite large numbers of formerly exceedingly well employed and highly intelligent people into sessions in which discussion is encouraged. Time is short, in the class day and in the life span of my cohort, so opinions, now rock solid after years of contention, are offered as fact. Opinions differ. Mine are correct, but I’ll entertain other points of view, responding to each with a well modulated hmmmm. The method works equally well in my civilian life, particularly as I encounter folks up here whose political compass does not point in the same direction as mine. I’m right again, but there are some battles I’ll have to take to the ballot box rather than shove a permanent wedge between my house and the electrician who knows where the wires have been crossed.
My other job is with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a repertory theater company with a mission to promote inclusivity, our collective humanity, and social justice. Patrons arrive with expectations, those expectations may be upended by the decision to cast two women as the leading roles in Oklahoma, and despite my conviction that the performances were stunning and moving, I can still meet strong objections with a well delivered hmmm.
I’m nearing the end, I think, of the Harry Hole novels, unless Nesbo is willing to pick up the burden once again, but I’ve got an appointment with Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly’s rogue force of nature in an unappreciative LAPD, whose terse rejoinders ( I’m relaxed, Belk. I call it Zen and the art of not giving a shit.”) are probably not going to serve me well unless I find myself in a holding cell.
It’s a perfect acknowledgment of message received