Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Well-Tampered Clavichord

One of my many reasons for favoring the mystery novel resides in the opportunity to identify with an individual working within the constraints of a bureaucracy as he or she pursues the truth regardless of outcome.

The pursuit is multifarious, simultaneously in spite of and against established order, frequently under some time constraint, just as frequently making some discovery that will damage the intent or reputation of someone in power.

Private investigators also intrigue me because they frequently have become private, as, say, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer became private out of a contempt for the limitations and corruption inherent in bureaucracy.

And of course the man or woman on the street, the innocent victim who is wrongly accused and must in his or her own self-interest, solve the crime, becomes another grand source of identification for me.

Although a fan of justice being done, both in the abstract and the specific, I don't care if the murderer is actually caught as much as I care that the murderer is identified and given some literary equivalent of the scarlet letter to wear. Seeing justice represented in drama satisfied me by reminding me of what could happen in real life, what very well might happen in real life.

Mystery fiction draws me into its labyrinthine and devious pages because of its focus on discovery--discovery of motive, of fact, or information. I read on for the flare-up of awareness that a character is not all he or she seems, that a relationship has some hidden common denominator, that some social or ethical more has been breached and someone is trying to cover it up. I read for the delicious moments in which the suspects of a crime are set scurrying in the fear that the investigation will reveal some misadventure of their own, completely collateral to the investigation in progress.

As I hope you will see of me, I relish this genre not for the sense of dramatic revenge in which the miscreant is punished, because, in fact, I am in addition to being naive, optimistic, and given to think well of my fellow humans, also a bit conflicted in my cynicism, my occasions of bigotry, and my willingness to suspect what I do not understand. I neither sit on nor aspire to the moral high ground, if for no other reason than that position would occlude my greater vision of myself and the humanity of which I am a part.

I relish the mystery because the truly good ones lead me to ask of myself:

What new miracle have you seen today? Where have you looked? What small miracle have you missed in search of the colossal, effulgent beauty? What story might you have missed? What opportunity did you allow to go uninvestigated? What equivalent of the purloined letter has been sitting on your desk all this while? What small pleasure have you missed because you were too busy to look? What question have you left unasked? What sincerely felt complement have you failed to convey to someone who evoked it within you? What crime have you committed upon another today? What crime have you committed upon yourself? What thing did you fear today that you took no step to understand or overcome? What,if anything, has made you feel happy today? What have you done to exercise and hone your craft today? What line did you step over today in the reach of accomplishment? What line held you back? Who are you? What is your motive? What is your opportunity?

Means, motive, and opportunity, are the factors that identify the major suspects in a mystery novel. What do yours say of you at any time?

Where is the mystery in you?

What will you do about it?

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