Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Impulse to Intrigue

You live in a world of mysteries.  Some of these mysteries are physical, relative to some of your earliest childhood questions to you mother. Why is the sky mostly blue?  How does an oasis know to be in the Sahara?  Why can't camels find water on their own?  Similar questions boys ask their mothers, often to the point of exasperating their mothers.

In more recent years, you've become intrigued by the persistence of quantum mechanics physicists trying to grasp how the universe got here, why, and how it works.  For a time, you were even rooting for those following the string theory.  You also like the notion of grown men and women devoting their professional lives to their attempts to discover the why and wherefore of some arcane fleck of information, and at the same time appear to have effected some understanding of what it is to maintain a successful, nurturing relationship with another man or woman.

Sometimes you more enjoy the acknowledgments in a book more than the actual text of the book, in particular if the acknowledgment has language that sounds like "thanks to Robert or John, or Maeve or Elizabeth, who was supportive beyond measure during the writing and research and editorial processes of this book."

Even though a work may be fiction, there is often more research in it than you realize.  Even though you've written enough books and edited enough more to jump onto the next one with great eclat, knowing you are in effect embarking on a trip without a compass or GPS system, there is for you a sense of admiration for the thought of another person, "there" for you as you embark once again.

Any new venture is a trip without the compass.  As a boy, you had something that was the then equivalent of your present-day iPhone, something you valued even more.  The object was a cereal premium.  So many boxtops of a breakfast cereal, sent with some amount that at the time seemed stunning, say twenty-five cents.

The device had a compass, a magnifying glass, a small mirror (to be used in sending Morse Code messages), and a secret compartment to hide messages.  Come to think of it, the device was about the size of your iPhone, made of cardboard.  On one side, as though you needed it, was the Morse Code.  On the other, a sketch of some radio program hero, Captain Midnight or the cowboy, Tom Mix, or perhaps Red Ryder.  The device gave you a sense of power, and the power was, of course the ability to cope with adventures.  All you needed now was an adventure to follow.  You were prepared.

Alas, there were no adventures then, not until you made them up, shifted the landscape in your mind, formed loathsome villains and malefactors out of persons you dealt with in real life such as Mr. Pope, the janitor at Hancock Park Elementary School.  In your mind's eye, his gruffness and good-natured banter had to substitute for meanspiritedness, while in real life, the most malicious things he ever said to you were that his grandson could beat you in tether ball, and that you would do well to use a bit more soap when washing your hands.

To your credit, you were not content to be stopped dead in your tracks by what may have been an at-times edgy childhood but by most accounts a happy one.  You invented monsters and villains and were in effect shoplifting others from books you'd read and enjoyed.  Your favorite of these, the baron Reginald Front-de-Boeuf, came from Ivanhoe.  He was right up there with Count Fosco, the villain in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, splendid in his brocade vest, with the master touch for all villains, of a tiny mouse which he carried with him in his vest pocket.

Of course the mysteries that drew you close were the mysteries of novels, of imagination.  Splendid as it was to think of the scientists busily attempting to solve the more physical mysteries of the universe, the mystery novel became your metaphor for the adventures of discovery you sought with such diligence as a youngster.  

Sitting now in coffee houses or peering about the buffet stations at Whole Foods and Lassen's Markets, you affect an interest in the quinoa or chicken in green chile sauce while pondering the exchanges of contraband, the coded conspiracies of individuals you recognize, even nod to, persons you know from campus or somewhere within the warp and weft of life in this relatively small city.  You are inventing lover's trysts, hiring of assassinations, disposals of illegal caches, at the same time trying to capture a particular posture or walk, should you ever need to venture in disguise.

You have great admiration for many scientists, men and women who also seek understanding of mysteries.  Your dean at the university is a gifted, articulate scientist, his daughter well on her way to becoming gifted and articulate in that field as well as in yours.  Thus, by example, your overwhelming enthusiasm to converse with the scientist on his or her own terms.  But, ah, the mysteries of the human heart, of relationships, of behavior, of secret compartments, of gadgets--these are the mysteries that draw you.

You were well into your teens before you learned to put a compass to practical use, filching information from your time in the Reserve Officer's Training Corps (a University of California requirement at the time) and applying it to maps more related to hiking and camping.  Although experiments with mirrors to send Morse Code messages were lackluster failures, and "secret" telephones made with tin cans, string, and buttons caused more arguments than exchanges of useful information, the impulse to intrigue was set in motion.

You had one friend with whom on occasion you played variations of you being Henry Morton Stanley or, conversely, Dr. Livingston, and your combined difficulties in being able to come up with anything after "Dr. Livingston, I presume." to this day remind you of the need for dialogue with an intriguing subtext.

Mystery draws you.  It is a demanding discipline.  Even though you've known and edited some preeminent mystery writers, you are still in many ways in awe of its potentials, still in a metaphoric sense, waiting for that Kraft-paper envelope with your name on it, the envelope with the remarkable tool, way in advance of the iPhone, that will help you find your way in the darkness of the existential night, the hope you will at length solve the mystery, and that there will be someone to whom you can give recognition in the acknowledgments.

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