Writing Histories and Loving Mysteries

I love to read mysteries. I used to think of mysteries as the book equivalent of candy corn, my special treat which gave me a rush but not one which necessarily was feeding my brain. But as a now fifty-year long reader of mysteries (I started with Encyclopedia Brown and quickly moved on to Sherlock Holmes, then the works of John Macdonald, Agatha Christie, George Simenon, and Josephine Tey), I’ve come to realize that not only do mysteries feed my dopamine-driven need for the exhilaration of hunt and seek and find; they also most definitely feed my brain and my soul.

Well-crafted mysteries plunge the depths of human existence — after all, what greater motivation is there to think about the meaning of life than the extinguishing of a life? In novels such as Blood Harvest or Awakening by Sharon Bolton, or any of the Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the characters not only have to struggle with existential questions but also face personal issues of feeling like an outsider, working in a hostile environment, relationship issues (lover, spouse, parent, child), and addiction. For the sleuth, solving the mystery is almost a vacation for them, a release from dealing with all their personal issues, an escape from their own reality into the horrible facts of the crime. Of course, there is backlash from using a crime to escape your own inner demons, but that only makes the books that much more interesting, complex, and in the end, meaningful for the reader — and nourishing for the soul of the reader.

Mysteries I’ve Loved

Mysteries offer insight into how I deal with my own issues, and how people around me deal with theirs; and perhaps reading mysteries makes me more empathetic to others, and more forgiving of myself. There is no doubt in my mind that reading Louise Penny’s Gamache novels make me a better person. Or that reading The Searcher by Tana French made me more appreciative of the physical world I inhabit, and the communities in which I live and work, while also reminding me of the commitment I owe to those struggling with poverty, loss, and despair.

Mysteries also stretch my brain (well-written ones, that is)because I have to work through a complex series of problems to reach a solution, and I do so guided by the hand of the writer — but that hand has to be subtle and, frankly, brilliant. Brilliant, because to write a mystery that leads to a satisfying and yet surprising conclusion is very, very hard to do — and yet there are so many great writers out there doing it. Solving the crime alongside them stretches my brain; and challenging myself to be like them, to see a problem and work through all the myriad ways of solving it, feeds my brain. And maybe makes me brilliant? I can only try, and keep on trying.

Which leads me to why reading mysteries also nourishes and encourages the work I do as a writer of histories. I write histories that are completely fact-based, not a bit of fiction in them, and yet I try to write my books like novels, and hopefully, like mysteries, i.e., page turners. Because real life is a mystery and a page-turner, especially when dealing with the sorts of topics I write about: families with huge expectations for their offspring and their communities — and what the generations did with those expectations and why (The Lowells of Massachusetts), and families from whom sprang the fomenters of the American Revolution and founders of our country, and why and how did they have the guts to rebel and start a brand-new nation (American Rebels).

In researching my books, I set off like a sleuth from a favorite mystery. I look for clues, ask questions, organize my research onto notecards, and then go out and look some more. I am looking, always looking, for clues and more clues to offer satisfying answers to the questions I’ve posed for myself in wanting to write the book in the first place. If there are no questions I want answered, then there is no book; and if the questions are both interesting and potentially answerable, then there is a book to be written. And in answering those questions, I feed my brain and my soul, finding answers to tricky problems and also to basic existential questions of why we’re here and what can we do while we’re here, alive on earth now.

And best of all, both the writing of histories and the reading of mysteries fulfill my dopamine-driven need for the exhilaration of hunt and seek and find. The search for knowledge and finding some of it, there is just nothing better.

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