The Surprising Reason We Love Books About Murderers, Victims and Gumshoes
For these reasons, I escape as often as I can into the semi-other, morally ambiguous universes of mysteries by Philip Kerr, whose Berlin Noir trilogy is set in Nazi Germany; Benjamin Black (a.k.a. John Banville), whose crime fiction takes place in 1950s Dublin; Walter Mosley, whose Easy Rawlins novels play out in and around the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles from the 1940s to the '60s; and Dorothy L. Sayers, whose stories costarring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane unfold around London's Bloomsbury neighborhood, Oxford, and Hertfordshire in the early 20th century. The crimes in these mysteries are occasions to hear the slang of another time ("March violets" for folks who came late to the Nazi Party, "devil in a blue dress" for a woman of questionable virtue), to smell its cigarettes (Woodbines in Ireland, Murattis in Germany), to walk its streets (Upper Mount Street in Dublin, 103rd Street in Los Angeles, Jowett Walk in Oxford), or to ride down them (in a Hanomag, a '50s Buick, or a jalopy).
These writers expertly deliver the texture of daily life in worlds made just slightly strange by the distance of history. Sayers's characters wear their academic gowns at Oxford, black sleeves fluttering as they bicycle to class. In Kerr's Berlin, Bernie Gunther tries to get information from a pawnbroker whose bookshelves are empty because Jews have been banned from selling books. All four authors illuminate social orders in which crime is often linked to inequalities of sex, race, religion or class. Biracial characters passing as white, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and political betrayals inevitably emerge as bloody facts, impossible to ignore. The detectives investigating offenses are as conflicted as their worlds. Gunther is an ex-policeman functioning under Nazi rule through a mixture of smarts, self-loathing and the ability to adapt as needed. Black's Quirke is, well, quirky—alcoholic, gloomy, lusty and bitterly angry at the going Irish Catholic mores. Vane was tried for murder herself and never loses the taint. Unlike, say, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, an outsider who coolly surveys a microcosm and then issues a clever, logical judgment from beneath his mustache, these detectives aren't above their hypocritical milieus, but in them up to their world-weary necks. They don't solve their cases by reason as much as by their hard-won knowledge of the often-duplicitous human heart, starting with their own.
Doesn't sound terribly escapist, does it? Where are the tropical islands, the beautiful strangers? But what I love about these books is being in the company of complicated people in their complex times and places—everything that keeps them in, all the ways they seek to get out and the mysteries of life that can't ever be solved.