With shootings all over the news, why do I enjoy reading (and writing) detective stories now? It's not a mystery

With shootings all over the news, why do I enjoy reading (and writing) detective stories now? It's not a mystery
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The city of Chicago's murder rate is so high that even "BBC World News America" is covering the story. Police forces around the country are having various troubles. Crime stories are everywhere in real life.

So why am I writing about detective stories here, and reading them any chance I get?

As with so many of the great questions, I can find an answer in a story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As Sherlock Holmes told Dr. John Watson in Doyle's "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,"

"Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell." 

That comes to mind often lately when I turn away from another news story about the day's violence and turn to writing  my own detective story or reading someone else's.

Reading about detective stories in "The Golden Age of Murder" by Martin Edwards (Harper Collins Publishers, 2015) has helped me compare the present day to what is often called "the golden age of mystery writing," namely the years between the first two world wars (1918-1939).

Edwards' book describes the lives and works of members of the Detection Club, great writers of the era and genre such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and even A.A. Milne (who was elected thanks to his masterful book "The Red House Mystery").

Edwards presents a theory about the writers' success:

"The movers and shakers in the Detection Club were young writers who at first pretended to write according to a set of light-hearted 'rules.' This symptomized (sic) the 'play fever' that swept through Britain after the First World War, when games as different as contract bridge and mah-johngg captured the popular imagination, and crossword puzzles were all the rage."

But why after the war? How could that be like now?

"After the loss of millions of lives in combat, and then during the Spanish flu epidemic, games offered escape from the horrors of wartime -- as well as from the bleak realities of pace. Economic misery seemed never-ending. The national debt ballooned, and politicians imposed an age of austerity."

Apart from different things being imposed by present-day politicians, that seems amazingly familiar. That escape explains the stories' appeal, but what about their value?

That brings me back to "logic is rare." I can't find logic in much of my life, but I can impose it on my characters as I write and find it when I read.

When the rest of life is too messy, it is upon the logic that I should dwell. There's something calming about knowing an answer is near, knowing a Great Detective is in charge.

Knowing more about logic, practicing it in reading and writing, can help the world feel more logical -- even when I'm not reading or writing.

That's logical in itself.


Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.

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  • "After the war" is also pertinent to the popular culture after WWII (Sgt. Bilko, Hogan's Heroes) and Korea (M*A*S*H in various forms, including first novel). Somehow Phred the Terrorist never caught on after Vietnam, probably because we lost.

    On your Chicago one, while the shootings near Humboldt Park seem related to drug cartel activity, maybe your detective can figure out what is really happening, when most of the south and west side ones are of "unintended victims" and "nobody is in custody."

    Finally, while "logic is rare," it is the essence of the detective genre. Nobody is going to write a book about John Burge attaching electrodes to someone's genitals or the CIA waterboarding K.S.M. Also, take my word that Perry Mason didn't learn how to get his clients acquitted by reading Corpus Juris Secundum and American Law Reports 2d, no matter what the closing credits imply.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for the TV update, Jack. You have a good point.
    As for my own writing, it is set in Northwest Indiana -- so far out of the city that I think I'll use a real incident, when I asked a neighbor about the city and she said "Which one?"
    Logic is rare, so that's why I need to keep dwelling on it (or clinging to it, some days).

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Since I grew up in NWI, it isn't going to make any difference so long as it is in Lake County north of Lowell. Gary was the per capita murder capital of the world, but now that may be the situation because it has lost 55% of its population since 1970.

    For instance, there is the case of Darren D. Vann accused of strangling prostitutes and leaving their bodies in abandoned houses in Gary, who was caught when one of the victims met through an "online escort service" was found dead in a motel room just across the city line in Hammond. Reports are that the "facilitator" of the "date" knew that the victim was there and checked out the scene when getting suspicious texts back.

  • In reply to jack:

    It's in Porter County -- Valparaiso, to be specific. It looks like you could be quite a crime writer yourself, Jack.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    The villain better not have wiped out Chris Koetke* 25 years before he could do "Let's Dish."

    At least in the Gary-Hammond-Calumet City area, they write themselves. For instance, my father used to say "The Hammond Police couldn't stop a robbery at [store] across the street from the police station." That, much later, turned out to be true, as it was reported that someone was lured by a Facebook post for a cell phone into an alley about block from the police station and was shot and robbed.

    Coming closer to home at Chicago Now, there was the murder of Garrard McClendon's parents in Hammond, bodies dumped in Calumet City.

    I concluded that Hammond was no longer safe when there was a Gang Unit cop car parked a block from my high school.
    *Chris once said that while he was from Valpo, he feels like he is from the South. I said "that depends on what side of U.S. 30 you grew up."

  • In reply to jack:

    No, the villain will be caught by the end of the book, and no one among my characters was/is much of a cook.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I was thinking more of a "Back to the Future" thing, sort of if Chris ended up dead in 1983, would we have digital TV today?

    Which again reminds me of something else. Channel 50 had a crime stopper's show, involving some unsolved 20-year old murder in East Chicago, apparently some "unintended victim" driving into a gang warfare trap. There was another episode on police dog training by the Hobart, Ind. P.D. Interesting that while they had Czech Shepherds and Belgian Tervurens, the handlers were giving them commands in German ('sitz'). They didn't explain whether that was the dogs' native language or that was for keeping the Mexicans from calling them off.

  • In reply to jack:

    That's your story, Jack, not mine. Go for it!

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I forgot {it happens these days} that, as my mother would put it. Mike Hossa would fit right in in Whiting, Indiana.

  • In reply to jack:

    A Czechoslovakian (this is set in 1983) immigrant policeman is not someone I mean to be "fitting right in," Jack.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    As a Czech, her reference was to the Slovaks in Whiting. So, he would.

  • In reply to jack:

    Aha. Thank you. I haven't established where Mike goes home to, only where he works.

  • Great post! Now you have me thinking about the film noir detectives, and the hard-boiled private eyes of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. A different world, amoral, shades of gray.

    Perry Mason could be part of that noir world, at least that seemed to be his clients...

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you. I thought I'd share the comfort that any good detective can bring when the world doesn't seem logical enough. No objections to Mr. Mason being part of that world on my side.

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