Mysteries had a bad rap when I was growing up. Being a mystery lover was like dating a guy from the wrong side of the tracks. My favorite high school teacher described them as the penny candy of the literary world. Too easy, too much fun. It was all summed up in one word, spoken with contempt: escapist. When a college application asked: “What ten books would you take to a desert island?” I knew they were looking for broccoli, not chocolate.
Six years later the Peace Corps gave me the real life opportunity to answer the desert-island question. They offered to ship a box of books to our post in Ethiopia. By then I’d absorbed the values of my liberal arts education. I assembled tomes by Dostoevski, Proust, Joyce–my own great books course. No mysteries.
Finding myself in a remote village in southern Ethiopia where language barriers limited most conversations to the weather, I figured the Great Books were my key to sanity. But it wasn’t Ulysses that I read in that remote village. It was The Big Sleep and The Drowning Pool. The Peace Corps had also supplied a book locker of paperback books, and they had chosen more wisely than I.
My year in the bush taught me that chocolate can be as necessary for survival as broccoli. When you have just visited the market and found yourself followed by several hundred curious people who regard your white skin as a strange and probably unnatural phenomenon, you are not in the mood to tackle Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. And when you are living your own version of The Trial, Kafka loses some of his appeal.
At times like that, you need escape. If you can’t climb on a plane and flee, the next best thing is a book that grabs hold of your frazzled mind and focuses it on something other than your own misery. I doubt that W.H. Auden had mysteries in mind when he said, “Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep,” but his observation certainly applies to books as much as to planes.
When I look back on the books that offered me escape in Ethiopia, I realize that many of them were more substantial fare than penny candy. Then, as today, there were mysteries that offered not only a compelling tale but insight into human nature, perceptive comments on society, powerful language and haunting imagery. Because they were so easy to read, so hard to put down, some people underestimated their worth.
Times have changed since my college days when I hid my mysteries between “serious” novels. Mysteries have become downright respectable. One of my daughter’s friends from Wellsley told me that she’d chosen “Sisters in Crime” for her freshman English class, and more and more colleges are including courses on mystery in their curricula. They are recognizing that just because a book can offer escape does not mean that it can’t offer more, that the distinction between broccoli and chocolate is a false one.
Now that we’ve become respectable, I occasionally hear the word “escapist” spoken with the same derision I recall from the old days. Rather than deride it, I would celebrate that aspect of our work. Sure, it’s not our only goal. Mysteries offer a lot more than escape. But to give someone a few hours of respite in the midst of an unbearable situation, a place to escape when the outside world becomes too hard, has always been a special gift of our genre and continues to be a worthwhile goal.
An Annotated Linda Grant Reading List
Buy Linda Grant Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Linda Grant is the author of a series featuring San Francisco private investigator Catherine Sayler who specializes in high-tech crime, taking cases that range from sabotage in a genetics lab (Lethal Genes) to sexual harassment in a software company (A Woman’s Place). Her most recent novel is Vampire Bytes. Grant is a former president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in Berkeley with her family.