At the beginning of December, I turned to whodunit fiction as a respite from the accumulated exhaustion of a long year, and the more recent stresses of writing about the horrors of the war in Israel and Gaza. But why, if that was my purpose, would I find solace in such an inherently violent genre?
I now realize that what I really craved, and found in abundance in these novels, was solutions. The heart of this genre is not the murders that precipitate the plot, but the process by which they are solved — and, above all, the promise that they will be.
The Detection Club, a literary society, was formed in 1930 by a group of prominent British mystery writers, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. Members had to swear an oath promising that their fictional detectives “shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them,” and that their mystery solutions would never rely on “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God.”
It’s a telling promise: No one cared what kinds of crimes were to be solved, or who was to solve them. But when it came to the process of solving the crimes, rules were rules.
That is what makes mysteries comforting even when the events they depict are horrifying. Unlike the horrors of the real world, or even less formulaic forms of crime fiction like thrillers, the mystery genre promises readers an ending in which their questions are answered and some form of justice is done.
My read this week, “A Place of Execution” by Val McDermid, is a perfect example of that. The crimes at the heart of the book are horrifying — in fact, they were very close to the limit of what I can bear to read, because I have a hard time with depictions of violence against children. But the promise of a solution at the end was just enough to keep me reading.
It was a promise the book kept, though not in a typical way. The first section is a relatively formulaic detective story, in which a young police officer on his first big case confronts an insular community hostile to outsiders like him, but manages, through grit and perseverance, to find the culprit. But then McDermid dismantles those conventions with a twist that tears apart the detective’s tidy victory, leaving even more unanswered questions than when the story began. What seems like a solution to the mystery at the heart of the book begins to look like another horrifying crime.
She introduces a new sleuth who solves the mystery again, this time accurately. And it was that double satisfaction of seeing the crime solved, then solved again, that made me realize how much these novels are the literary equivalent of those Instagram accounts that publish sped-up videos of overgrown lawns being mowed into submission: They present you with a mess you never knew existed, then offer the vicarious experience of sorting it out, with a promise that order will be restored by the end.
I like to think of myself as someone who is as engaged by messy chaos as by orderly solutions. In my reporting, after all, I tend to be drawn to near-intractable problems like systemic corruption and structural discrimination. I rarely write about solutions, because the real world so rarely offers them. It is important to me to be a person who can handle that swirling vortex of disorder without shying away, to see the fascinating story behind a house half-devoured by a jungle of overgrown grass rather than the easy pleasure of a mowed lawn.
But perhaps because I lean into the messiness of the real world, I find myself craving the opposite from fiction. In a recent episode of “The Book Review,” a Times podcast, Steven Soderbergh, the filmmaker, said that he keeps a list of the books he reads in a year as a reminder of the person he was when he read them.
This newsletter is the closest I come to such a list, and it stands as a reminder of what I’m doing this winter, if not necessarily who I am: pursuing fictional certainty as a way to recharge myself for encounters with an uncertain world.
Reader responses: What you recommend
Ruben Valdivia, a reader in Miami Beach, recommends “Lives Less Ordinary,” a podcast from the BBC World Service:
This podcast is one of my pleasures when wanting to listen to fascinating stories.
Some recent episodes include “Love in the time of revolution,” which describes the love story of two Uruguayan guerrilla fighters — one of whom ended up becoming the president of that country later in life. Another episode covers the story of Alex Wheatle, an award-winning author, and his relationship with his cellmate while in prison, which turned his life in a different direction. And one of my favorites is the story of a family who was adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 38 days after their sailboat capsized.
What are you reading?
Thank you to everyone who wrote in to tell me about what you’re reading. Please keep the submissions coming!
I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) that you recommend to the Interpreter community.
If you’d like to participate, you can fill out this form. I may publish your response in a future newsletter.