In Defense of the Detective Novel

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of my most profound realizations regarding said subjects. From Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot I have learned that the truth has a beauty and a virtue of its own, quite apart from its subject. From Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael I have learned the importance of understanding human nature and acknowledging one’s own weaknesses. I have grasped the concept of not setting oneself above others–that elusive idea we call humility. These books have taught me the danger of shrugging one’s shoulders at small evils, because they open the way for larger ones. Above all, I have learned that justice must be pursued for those who have no voice of their own, that it the responsibility of everyone who can be heard to speak for those who can’t.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ second Lord Peter novel, Clouds of Witnesses, Lord Peter falls victim to a bog in which he is almost lost. At first glance, it can read as cliche, but I think there’s a deeper metaphor to be drawn from it–whether Sayers meant it or not. Sometimes, in the pursuit of truth and justice, it is easy to get lost in the fog, to get stuck in a mire and lose our way, nearly drowning in uncertainty and confusion. It is only through steadfast patience–as Bunter showed in keeping Lord Peter up until rescue came for them both–and light to show the way that we can make it out.

As a result of his unplanned fall into the bog, Lord Peter comes across the clue which allows him to unravel the entire mystery. The origin of the word “clue,” as I’m sure many of you already know, comes from the ball of thread Theseus used to guide himself through the Labyrinth. In that way, mystery stories themselves can act as clues, providing a thread for people who are stumbling in the miry dark, trying to see truth, walk the path of justice, practice mercy. In the assurance that justice will come, that the killer will be punished, that the dead are not left voiceless, mysteries act as lights against the darkness that can sometimes cause us to despair as we look at all the injustice and horror in the world around us.

I think it is no coincidence that the “Golden Age” of detective fiction was the between-war period, a time when life was changing, the rules by which everyone had always lived were upended, the values and morals they had always held immutable shifted and changed under their very feet. It was a time when an entire generation was trying to learn who they were, and what sort of a world they lived in–perhaps more importantly, what sort of a world they wanted to build. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, when the very ideas of truth and justice seemed like fairy tales, detective stories provided some assurance that good could conquer evil, and that justice was worth pursuing.

We are living in a time of chaos and change ourselves. We hope that the change will be for the better, but sometimes we can lose faith when we look at everything around us. I see an entire generation passionate for justice and truth, and sometimes getting too weighted down by the burden of those concepts to keep going, sometimes feeling like they are one lone voice shouting against the dark. Now, more than ever, we need detective stories to help give us that clue, to help guide us through these times, to remind us that we are not alone, and that even the small acts of justice, mercy, and truth we can do in our everyday lives matter.

And Poof

… just like that, the summer is gone.

I’m not breaking my heart over its departure. I hate the heat with a burning passion. When it gets 90°F or higher, when you can’t even open the windows at night for a fresh breeze, when the humidity is so high you feel like you are drinking the air instead of breathing it, that’s when I start thinking longingly of February. I don’t function well in heat. At least if I’m cold I can always throw on another layer (it is not unusual for me to be wandering around in a sweater, wool socks, fingerless mitts, a scarf, slippers, and sometimes even a hat, inside. And thinking longingly of knitting myself a shawl. Our apartment is VERY poorly insulated) and drink another cup of tea. When it’s hot I simply flop down and whimper pathetically. My southern-born husband cannot understand this.

So this evening, as I listen to rain (at last! On top of everything else, we had the worst drought I’ve ever seen in this part of the world this summer–the poor farmers) patter outside my window, wearing my cozy sweatshirt with a blanket over my legs, I am practically purring with contentment.

This halcyon state of being won’t last long, I know. The kids and I are already three weeks into school. Our homeschool co-op starts a week from tomorrow, and it is going to be INTENSE this year. This is our second year doing Classical Conversations, Joy is starting the Essentials class this year, and oh boy is it going to be wild. I’m not entirely sure how I’ll balance my Teaching from Rest philosophy with CC’s high intensity program, but we’ll see how it goes. Carl’s off-campus class started last week; the Greek class he’s TA-ing and his thesis start next week. Grace’s ballet begins on Wednesday, Joy’s a week from today. As soon as my darned ankle is fully healed I’ll be trying to get back on the ice once a week. Then of course there is all of the “eek this is our last year here” activities, between hiking and apple picking and spending time with friends and church family, and applications for PhD programs and visas and figuring out how to transfer ourselves to another country next year … Our life is suddenly PACKED.

And somehow or other I have to fit writing in there. One of the ladies who came to my library appearance last spring pulled me aside after church yesterday to ask when the next Whitney & Davies book was coming out. “I don’t want to be a nag,” she said, “I just really can’t wait.” Words to inspire any author to feats of greatness! Thankfully she’s also a homeschooling mom, though her kids are older, so she understood my nervous laughter and confession that I have NO idea when anything is going to happen. She also encouraged me AS a homeschooling mom to let not my own passions take too much of a backseat–it has to happen somewhat when one is in this season, but it does not do to neglect them (or your own needs) entirely. That’s the sort of thing I know in my head, but sometimes have a hard time remembering when I’m in the thick of things.

It was also a lovely reminder that my words and my stories are not simply dropping into the void, that there are people out there who care about my characters and my worlds and want to know what’s going to happen next, and that I do have a responsibility to them, as well, to not neglect those stories for too long. So I will squeeze in the writing when I can, waiting during ballet classes, occasionally letting the dirty dishes sit on the counter, sometimes giving the kids independent math work to do, five minutes here and ten minutes there, little by little, letting it add up.

So if you don’t see much of me here on this blog, or on Twitter or FB this fall, it’s not a bad thing–it means I’m spending my time wisely! (Conversely, if you DO see a lot of me on social media … well, that probably means I’m procrastinating with the things I ought to be doing.)

Happy autumn, friends. May your September be filled with blue skies, crisp days, rosy-cheeked apples fresh-picked off a tree, simmering soups, and plenty of hot tea, good friends, and good stories.

Underrated Books

I saw this theme floating around today, and I was intrigued. The stated limit is “books with under 2,000 ratings on Goodreads,” and I cheated a little by including one with 2,039 ratings. I was pleased to see how many of my favorite books were not as underrated as I always suspected–Emily of Deep Valley, for example, had too many ratings to make it onto the list, as did several of Lloyd Alexander’s books. I still managed to find ten, though, and probably could have kept going did not supper interrupt!

Seaward, Susan Cooper. I love The Dark is Rising series, but this book of hers is little known, and deserves better. It is haunting and mysterious, hope-filled with a hint of terror behind it, and it’s the sort of book that stays with you for days afterward. Lovely, lovely writing. More people should read it.

The Rope Trick, Lloyd Alexander. Much as I love Lloyd, I did not love this book the first time I read it. The second (because even an unloved Lloyd warrants at least a second read), I realized it was one of the more powerful books he’d written, and that the very aspects that turned me off at first were its strengths. By the third time I read it, it had become one of my favorites. Again, it’s the sort of book that seeps into your soul and stays with you for a long time after you’ve closed it.

Clover, Susan Coolidge. More confessions: I don’t really like What Katy Did. The next two books in the Carr family series are better (What Katy Did At School will always be cherished by me if for no other reason than it introduces the always-delightful Rose Red), and this one’s my favorite. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people give up before they get to this point. Don’t. As with Louisa May Alcott and LM Montgomery, and Maud Hart Lovelace, these books are more revolutionary and progressive for their era than they appear at first. Plus, this one has some of the most gorgeous descriptions of Colorado I’ve read anywhere in it. I’ve never been further west than Minneapolis, but boy does this book make me want to.

The Keeper of the Mist, Rachel Neumeier. I haven’t come across a Neumeier book I dislike yet, but this one is my favorite of them all. Dreamy, fairy-tale-ish, with a strong edge of practicality, with fabulous characters and beautiful prose. My review on Goodreads itself says it all!

The Gate of Ivory, Doris Egan. Sci-fi that is sheer fun, with some more serious matters snuck in around the edges. Can you say tailor-made for me? It’s delightful.

The Runaway Princess, Kate Coombs. This is the book that goes 39 ratings above the limit, but I don’t care. It’s so much fun, and it’s shamefully under-read. Plus it’s the book that introduced me to one of my best internet friends (hi, Amy!)–after reading it, I looked up the author online, discovered her blog, started commenting on her blog, discovered another blogger who shared my love for Henry Tilney also commenting on her blog, and the rest was history.

Resistance, Laura Josephsen. Laura is one of the first indie authors I ever discovered, and the one who proved to me that independently-published fiction could in fact be brilliant, gripping, and well-written/edited. Sadly, this book and its sequel are now out of print, but I believe you can read them, broken into four parts instead of two, on Wattpad.

The Grass Widow’s Tale, Ellis Peters. I love Peters’ Brother Cadfael books, but I also thoroughly enjoy her lesser-known Inspector Felse books. The Grass-Widow’s Tale focuses on Bunty, Inspector Felse’s wife, and it is another one of those books that makes me want to shout with joyous strength by the time I finish.

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie Haskell. A Sleeping Beauty retelling that is really well done, something hard to find for that particular fairy tale. Cinderella, Snow White, even Rapunzel … those all seem easy enough to put a spin on that remains true to the original intent while still making it engaging for readers. Sleeping Beauty, not so much. Which is understandable, given that the heroine of it has pretty much zero agency throughout her entire story, and in order to give her agency one has to twist said story into something else entirely. Haskell manages to avoid both pitfalls, and create an engaging story to boot. It’s lovely.

Seventh Son, A.M. Offenwanger. I am the lucky beta reader who gets to see each tale in this series before publication, and have watched this world and these characters grow from the first. Offenwanger is another of my dear internet friends, and her books are always a joy to read. Seventh Son is especially fun, combining fairy tale elements with everyday life, and introducing some truly lovely characters. I would love to see these books get more appreciation!

As an author who has yet to break double digits for Goodreads reviews myself, I know how hard it is when your books continually fly under the radar–especially when self promotion is so hard to do without being tacky*. So, give some of them a chance and try one or two from my list, and see what you think!

*granted, for the dead authors on my list self promotion is well nigh impossible, and they aren’t exactly weeping into their morning coffee over lack of reviews, but I’m sure their heirs would appreciate the attention.

Dreams and Schemes and Wisdom

The older I get, the harder it is to keep dreaming.

Not daydreaming, that I’m sure I’ll be doing when I’m ninety … still fondly imagining myself soaring across the ice each night before going to sleep, still beguiling boring tasks by picturing myself off on a grand adventure through space and time, still wondering “what if” and sparking new stories each time.

But the, if I may call them this, practical dreams. The dreams that turn to schemes, dreams threaded through with the hope they may one day become reality. Those are getting harder.

When I was a teenager, it was easy to believe the world was laid at my feet and all I had to do was pick a dream and follow it for it to come true. These days … I’ve experienced enough to know that’s not always the case. In fact, it rarely is.

So when I came up with a new scheme for my writing career the other day, it was immediately tempered. I enjoyed it without letting myself think too deeply about it for only a few hours, not even a full day, because in the back of my mind I knew it would lose its shiny excitement and appeal as soon as I examined it more closely. And sure enough, it did. It turned from a dream into the reality that this new potential plan involves just as much work – as much slogging, as much sweat, as much time, and as much frustration – as anything.

That doesn’t mean I discarded it. I’m still mulling it over. I might even give it a go. I might not – there have been other career plans that I have concocted and discarded without even attempting in the past. This might join their ranks. Or it might end up in the pile of “things I tried that didn’t work.” Or maybe this one will fulfill its initial promise. At this point, there’s no way of knowing.

Because that’s the other thing about experience. Even though it’s harder work to dream these days, I know that the dreams that I do fight for, that I do pursue, that maybe don’t come true with glitter and pomp, but quietly, as the result of hard work and effort, are more worth the holding (publishing Magic Most Deadly, for example … there was no fantastic offer from a big publishing house, no six-figure deal, no huge sales skyrocketing me to fame and fortune … just a lot of hard work resulting in my longest-held dream coming quietly true and bringing me great joy in so doing).

So maybe I don’t grab recklessly at dreams anymore, but I do keep dreaming – and scheming, only with a tad more wisdom applied to the process. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how much cynicism tries to tell me to quit dreaming because it’ll never happen, no matter how discouragement tries to creep in when dream after dream fades to nothing, I won’t quit. I won’t settle. Maybe I’m not shooting for the stars at this point in my life … but I see no reason to stay in the valley when I can be climbing mountains.

Light and Love

Even if it does take more work to get there.

On Not Writing

I’m in a peculiar place right now, and I honestly can’t think of the last time I was here.

I have nothing to write.

Both Magic in Disguise and Rivers Wide are at their respective beta readers, waiting to be polished. I have no other projects on hand right now. For the first time in years, I am at a loss.

Oh, there are plenty of ideas. My lovely sci-fi story that’s been simmering in the back of my mind for several months now—except I’m not sure but that it needs more simmering before I start actually writing it. The next Whitney & Davies story—except I don’t have a plot for that yet. The sequel to Rivers Wide—except that is going to require a lot of research before I can actually write it. A possible sequel to From the Shadows—except I don’t know if I’m ready to return to that universe at this time. Something entirely new and different? Am I ready for that kind of commitment? Maybe some short stories? Except I’m kind of terrible at short stories?

I haven’t minded having a nice break, but my fingers are starting to itch. I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in July in hopes that having those requirements will force me to get started. (Also because July is pretty much the only Camp NaNo month that works with my schedule) In the meantime I’ll keep resting my sprained ankle (which had been healing nicely, thank you, even ahead of schedule, until I did a two-mile beach walk and got a truly dreadful sunburn all in one day this past weekend, leading it to swell up like a balloon on me again. Sigh), slathering aloe on my sunburn, enjoying time with my visiting family, getting ready for Joy’s ballet recital, and going to Maine for a few days, as well as finishing up the year’s schoolwork with the kids so we can start fresh in September.

It’s not like I don’t have plenty to do … but none of it is writing and boy do I get antsy when I go too long without that!

No, You Move

By now, everyone has heard about the mess Marvel is trying to make of Captain America, right? They’re not exactly being secretive about it. A cynical person might even suspect this is a move driven not by artistic standards but by an attempt to whip up interest and sell more comics.

I haven’t read the comic in question, but in case you haven’t seen the reports all over the internet, [SPOILERS], they have written it as canon that Cap is and has been secretly working for Hydra all along.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: This is not true.

Oh, it may be real. They may be really turning Steve Rogers, Captain America, Cap, into a despicable, worthless excuse for a human being, undoing all the good he’s ever done and ever stood for.

But it’s not true.

You can make up all the lies you want about Steve Rogers and call them canon and sell them and make millions of dollars off of them and even make it so nobody else can legally tell any other story about him—but you can’t make it true.

I don’t care if Steve Rogers is a fictional character. He’s true. Madeleine L’Engle said in her book Walking on Water: “Hamlet is. When the play has been read, when the curtain goes down on the performance, Hamlet still is. He is, in all his ambivalence, as real as Byron; or as the man who cried out, Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief! or as Ivan Karamazov.” There are certain characters, certain stories, that transcend their creator and become true by the virtue of the truth they represent. Steve Rogers is one of them.

I have long held that superheroes are America’s mythology. Great Britain has King Arthur, Robin Hood, St George—we have Captain America, Ironman, Wonder Woman, Superman. They are part of our mythos, they are the stories we tell as we try to shape and make sense of our culture. They both represent who we are and give us something greater to hold on to. Nobody embodies this more than Captain America. Heck, it’s even in his name. (Subtlety: not exactly our strong point, as a culture.)

The difference is, of course, that no matter how many different versions of the King Arthur story people tell, no matter how they change it, no matter how many people portray Arthur as a bad guy, the heart of the legend remains the same. It belongs to the culture, free to be interpreted however people need to interpret it at any given time. King Arthur, whether he was a historical character or not, is true. The idea of a post-Roman, Celtic Arthur fighting for the light in a time of widespread darkness is one that has resonated with me ever since reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. Don’t ever try to tell me he isn’t true. Was he real? Irrelevant.

The difference, of course, is that King Arthur belongs to all of us. Mostly to the Brits, of course, but they are gracious enough to share him with the world. Steve Rogers technically belongs to Marvel. Which means they are free to interpret his character however they want, and even destroy him, and the rest of us are helpless.

Oh, but we aren’t. Because I don’t care who owns the copyright on Steve Rogers, he belongs to us all just as much as Arthur does. Captain America—who can own someone like that? Who can own an ideal? Who can own a myth? Legally, sure. But Cap’s got nothing to do with copyrights and legalities. He transcends that.

So go ahead, Marvel, and say what you want to about Captain America. But you’re wrong, and the story you are telling is wrong, no matter how you may try to spin it later. HydraCap? Never. That’s a cheap move for shock value, and it’s a vile lie. Steve Rogers stands outside your grubby little hands, and is above whatever canon you create for him. Cap belongs to us, to all of us, and we aren’t going to let you try to tear him down. He’ll still be representing the ideals we hold so dear long after you are gone and forgotten. Because he’s true.

Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world—No, you move. (Steve Rogers, Amazing Spider-Man #537)

Spring Sprain

Thursday was a lovely spring day here (at last!) I got in my walk up the hill with Carl, part of my new exercise regimen as I try to take back my energy and overall health. On the way back down we stopped at the small playground for campus kids and hung out for a bit with our neighbor and her too-cute-for-words baby boy. Eventually Carl went back inside to get some work done, neighbor took the baby in for his nap, and the girls and I decided to go across the field to see the leaves on their favorite climbing tree.

When we got there, all the branches were too high for the kids to see well, so first I tried taking photos, and then when that proved ineffective, jumped up to snag a branch to tug down for the kids to see.

The first branch I couldn’t quite reach, even when jumping up. The second one I grabbed, but when I came down I must have landed on an uneven patch. My ankle rolled, I heard an ominous “crack,” and I rolled my body with my ankle in an instinctive attempt to protect it (former figure skater: we learn very early on how to fall).

The ankle immediately swelled up to twice its size, and the pain was indescribable. With the kids there (and the campus preschoolers blithely playing behind us) I had to keep calm so I didn’t scare them. Luckily my phone was near at hand, I grabbed it and tried to call Carl.

He didn’t answer. Three times. (We found out afterward that his phone didn’t even ring. Technology, you suck.) So I gave my keys to Joy and told her to run across the field, carefully cross the parking lot, and tell Daddy that Mom had fallen and her ankle might be broken. She took off, and I collapsed on the grass and focused on not passing out or throwing up from the pain, hoping that it looked to the preschoolers like I was merely resting on the grass. Gracie kept me company and blessedly didn’t ask any questions.

Carl and Joy finally made it back, we dropped the kids off with a neighbor who said she’d keep them as long as necessary and not to worry, and then we took off for the emergency room.

Once there, I got an X-Ray and the doctors determined it was a severe sprain, not a break, and I nearly cried from relief. An hour after we arrived, we were leaving the hospital, me with an Ace bandage and air cast and crutches and strict instructions to stay off my foot completely for one week and then to ease back into using it over the next 5-7 weeks after that. We went and got pizza for lunch, since we were both starving by then, got back home and maneuvered my crutches and me up to our second-story apartment and onto the couch, and Carl went and fetched the kids, who were vastly relieved to see me with my foot still attached.

And so here I am on Day 3 of my Week of Rest, as I’m hashtagging it on Instagram (elouise_bates). I have finished Chapter 10 of Magic in Disguise (only six chapters left), read three library books, watched a number of episodes of Death in Paradise whilst knitting a sweater for Joy, and directed kitchen operations from the easy chair. I’m so thankful I only have a week of this.

Thankful for a lot of things, really. Neighbors who looked out for our kids so I didn’t have to worry about them as well as my ankle, as well as offering to take them this week for an hour or so at a time, since I can’t. Thankful that Carl is done with classes so he can do the meals and run the kids to their various activities (did I mention it’s my right ankle? No driving for me for a bit) as well as get to the library to keep replenishing my supply of books. Thankful for a cheerful and efficient hospital staff: this was my first hospital visit since Joy’s birth, and despite the agony in my ankle, this time around was much, much more pleasant. Thankful for kids who, despite their own fear, kept calm and did what I asked without arguing or panicking (two years ago they would both have been wailing and flailing through it all). And deeply, deeply thankful that I am not going to have to miss out on a summer’s worth of activities–our last full summer here on the North Shore–because of a broken ankle. One week of inactivity is so much more endurable than twelve!

So that’s the news from Casa E.L. Bates.