If You Know Why…

By Helen Currie Foster

I don’t know where you are on this infernally cold day, but my husband and I have refugee’d to my sister’s place in Austin because her neighborhood has underground utilities. Yes, the underground power lines mean she’s thumbing her nose at all the ice hanging from every tree, shrub and bush.

In contrast, our sixty-year old abode in Dripping Springs is all electric. Rainwater system with a pump. Electric heat. Oh, sure, a fireplace and a charcoal grill. But the trees hang heavy with the ice…all along our dirt road the frozen cedars clutch the single power line.

So we flung bales of hay to the burros, dripped the faucets, fed the birds, hung a worklamp over the faucet to the washing machine, and left.We crept down Fitzhugh at fifteen miles an hour, flashers on. Hills that we ignore suddenly loomed large ahead of us. But we slithered up and down to my sister’s.

Which is where we wound up watching David Byrne’s American Utopia, filmed by Spike Lee. Okay, the Talking Heads got no attention from me––they seemed too urban and inward back in the day when I was living on tunes from Emmylou, Guy Clark, The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons. Tender harmonies, accessible. Relatable. Now there’s a word. Maybe. When did it pop up everywhere? As a positive term, too. Cozy. Approachable. I identified with the characters in those songs. Not so much with David Byrne…he’s not “relatable” but he’s riveting.

Watching David Byrne, singing his disorienting lyrics while moving as one with his variegated carefully chosen ensemble, with their precisely rehearsed exact choreography, reminded me that genius also resides in those we don’t “get.” Those who insist on providing their ownlarge vision of their creation. Those who challenge us (like David Byrne does when he stares at his puzzled and entranced audience). Who make us look at their unique and unfamiliar vision and…buy into it.

Maybe now you’re also recalling how Amanda Gorman created her own new vision at Biden’s inauguration: her smile, her high and formal hair, her slender hands waving in the air, almost forming the words as she spoke her poem. A new way to say a poem, be her own poem, draw us forward into her poem.

So after watching American Utopia I’m thinking of artists who refuse to get stuck in their genre but keep moving ahead of us down the road, hoping we’ll “get it” sooner or later, while remaining––regardless––determined to achieve their vision.

Two from the last century come to mind. First, Picasso. He refusedto get stuck in a rose period, a blue period. Just as we’d learned to love his line drawings of figures from myth or commedia dell’arte, we found ourselves facing guitar collages and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, large Cretan eyes in all the wrong places. If he’d lived forever he’d still be shocking us.

Second, Virginia Woolf. She never wrote the same novel twice. She focused on that unique human trait, individual consciousness, and the mystery of our occasional interconnection. Her compulsive drive in her novels to capture life––moments of revelation––emerged in differentstructures. Orlando. The Waves. The “Time Passes” scene in my lifetimefavorite, To the Lighthouse; also, the incredibly satisfying moment whenLily Briscoe, the spinster amateur artist, cautiously applies a final brushstroke to her painting and senses its rightness. Lily has “had her vision.” In Woolf’s last effort, Between The Acts, she overlays the battle of the sexes, the gulf (occasionally bridged) between a husband and wife, on the annual village pageant unfolding at the ancient barn at their country house where all the villagers participate in a precis of English history.

Woolf was severely criticized, and deeply wounded, by a then-dominant critic, Desmond McCarthy. He sneered, “Of the drama of the will in action out of which stories are made …she knows nothing. What an extraordinary, what a fatal limitation…in a novelist!”

But hey, does anyone read Desmond McCarthy anymore? Take comfort, Virginia. You still challenge, you still astound us.

What does this have to do with mystery writers? Do such lofty goals––never becoming too formulaic or overly predictable––apply to mystery writers? Well, a mystery must have––mystery! Which means a writer can’t get stuck doing the same things over and over. Hence mystery writers do somersaults to stay fresh. Point of view? Proseoptions? Choice of detective(s)?

Consider point of view. Think of Reginald Hill’s police inspectors Dalziel and Pascoe: sometimes one handles the case, sometimes the other. But in Arms and the Woman, Hill gave the point of view to Pascoe’s acerbic wife Ellie. Dorothy Sayers shifted point of view from detective Peter Wimsey’s manservant Bunter, to his love interest Harriet,to his Scotland Yard brother-in-law, Charles. Tony Hillerman uses a mixin his Leaphorn and Chee novels. The Dark Wind begins with omniscience: in chapter one we, along with “the Flute Clan boy,” and fellow Hopi kiva members, are the first to see the body of a Navajo, lying in the middle of the path where the kiva members are transporting sacred spruce branches for a desperately needed rain dance. In chapter two point of view shifts to the pilot of a night flight in the desert. Only inchapter three are we finally in the head of Navajo policeman Jim Chee. But the first two chapters set up the murder and create the powerful desert setting in which Chee operates.

Mystery writers also play with prose. Letters back and forth? Diary excerpts? Dorothy Sayers used both in Busman’s Honeymoon where she advances the plot and setting through the letters and diaries of the detective’s mother and manservant, as well as those of catty London socialites. (As you were about to mention, using such sources reveals the diarist’s/correspondent’s point of view too.) Emails? Reginald Hill used those as Dalziel’s source of information, when Dalziel’s confined to his hospital bed in A Cure for All Diseases. He even copied arial typeface for the emails (which actually I found quite irritating).

As mystery readers we settle comfortably into our favorite chairs fully expecting a murder. Yet sometimes the author teases the reader, providing comedy, but no murder, or granting us a body, but denying us a murderer. Georges Simenon occasionally had the indefatigable Inspector Maigret conclude that in fact there’d been death but no crime, as in The Late Monsieur Gallet. And what about the famous novelist’s death upstairs in the movie Knives Out?

For a real treat, take yourself back to 1913, and E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. No spoilers, but the oh-so-clever, so artistic, so fluent, so utterly charming detective…screws up his solution. I won’t tell you how many times, I just recommend it as another mystery twist.

Sometimes the author puts the reader to work, possibly too hard. Inher Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries Eleanor Catton uses many narrators, some unreliable, leaving the reader to make leaps of logic as to which death(s) were murder, and if so, who the murderer might be. Which, admittedly, is a great deal like life itself: we’re always trying to explain events without having enough information.

In my Ghost Next Door a murder occurs and is solved. But characters also debate a long-ago death: was it, or was it not, a murder?I’m now finishing the last chapters in my seventh Alice MacDonald Greer murder mystery. Again the point of view belongs to Alice; the bigquestion she faces is finding the motive. Alice operates on the premise that “If you know why, you know who.” We’re at the point where she hasn’t figured out why.

I’ll keep you posted.

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