Some years ago, I knew a woman with an epic obsession---literally. She was obsessed with a particular epic work of storytelling. Since this digital age is prone to public humiliation and the actual title of her obsession does not matter much, I’m going to call it Star Wars.
It was remarkable: All conversations with this woman---whether they began with talk about politics, the weather, or what kind of pizza to order---could only wind up at one destination: Star Wars. Improbable, but true. It wasn’t long before I was snickering behind her back, referring to her as “Star Wars Woman,” and avoiding her like the plague.
Star Wars Woman was intent on drawing other people into her obsession, no matter what the damage to those relationships. Had she been able to kill every remark, idea, or situation that could not be turned into a pertinent allusion, she would have done it. Those who came right out and told her that she was being insufferable were met with a knowing look and a reference to the forces of evil. Those who tried to ignore her were hunted down and accosted. Star Wars Woman was at heart a fundamentalist, by which I mean a person who is angered by the mystery of other people.
Other people are mysteries indeed. They refuse to be reformed on our terms; they refuse to share our obsessions; they refuse to fall in love with us or Go the F--- to Sleep or do their homework or follow us on Twitter. Billions of people, this very minute, are busy being their mysterious selves in an already mysterious universe. Intolerable and wondrous.
It seems to me that detective novels are a creative means of dealing with the anxiety that the presence of mystery among us evokes. We all know the story of the typical detective novel. A crime has been committed and we want to know whodunit. There is pleasure, often humor, in the process of figuring out whodunit, but there is also a certain urgency, because while the person or persons go unidentified, the innocent remain at risk. In fact, additional crimes do usually happen and the clues pile up. Then, at last, the guilty party is caught. We can shut the book and (one hopes) go the f---to sleep.
This story captivates us because we live it every day. We live in a world which is beautiful and good, but also a place where evil lurks. We want to know why. We bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice and there is satisfaction, a “sense of closure,” in seeing justice done. Wrongdoing, though, continues to happen; there are always more criminals where the convict came from. Something deeper is at work. We look to our heroes to fight that “something” and to help us fight it too.
The heroes and heroines of the detective novel come in all shapes and sizes. He may be an English lord with a fondness for poetry. She may be a frumpy little old lady of whom nobody thinks very much. They may be hard-bitten types, good-hearted Cops with a Theory Nobody Believes In, or a middle-schooler named Turtle who knows which way the wind is blowing. They come in all shapes and sizes, these heroes and heroines, like all of humanity, like us, and yet they are set apart because they have a special job to do. That job is to struggle with mystery and yet emerge whole.
I’m fascinated by people like that. Quite often, I find them reading, writing, and starring in stories. What about you?
Anna Bendiksen is a writer with a particular interest in the intersection of food and cultural identity. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her husband and son. You can follow her on Twitter @anna_bendiksen.