In anxious times, crime novels engage us and reassure us. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? A murderer is loose on the streets. We watch the sleuth(s), the more familiar the better, sort out the clues as they race against time to prevent more deaths. Although more people might fall, and the authorities might decide that the solution is inconvenient and choose to conceal the details with some vague palliative blather, the deaths are stopped, thanks to the sleuth. The community returns to “normal”, or very near—a new normal, or, as novelist Emily Wilson said “…creating a new, second-place vision for life after a terrible thing has taken first-choice hopes away. Justice can be part of that new hope, but it’s inherently a compromise. Justice is like a beautiful funeral: better than a terrible one, but the best would be not needing one at all.” [*] In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron cites a wealth of mind research to support her thesis that our brains crave stories because we learn via stories, trying out experiences to learn ways to cope with new challenges.[†] In a crime novel we follow the sleuth’s investigation, learning how we might do the same. We learn from their mistakes and their successes. We see how troubles might be resolved. We can even find comfort in realizing that everyone in a community has secrets, some more interesting or dangerous than others, but no one’s perfect. Even the familiarity of the regular ensemble of characters and settings in our favorite series is reassuring when calming down after a day of worries. All in all, it’s not such a crazy idea to pluck a crime novel off the shelf and curl up in our reading chair to read away the jitters.
As COVID-19 wormed its way into our lives I calmed myself before sleep by reading some of my favorite crime writers. For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I found them a comfort. Beginning in crisis, ending with order restored. To a degree. Donna Leon, Marty Wingate, Chris Nickson, Craig Johnson, Miranda James, Daphne du Maurier (suspense)… Some light, some a mix, some decidedly dark. Yet restorative. I have a good friend who once told me she wished I’d keep writing as Emma Campion because she could read those books; she can’t read my mysteries because they’re too scary. Time and again I’ve tried to explain to her why my novels about Joan of Kent and Alice Perrers are far scarier than my mysteries—Joan and Alice had so little control over their lives and I could do nothing to prevent their suffering. But she just couldn’t see it. Plenty do, thank goodness.
Of course, I have the added comfort of writing crime novels. I’m engaged in a new Owen Archer tale with some of my favorite characters, particularly Magda Digby. I find the plotting of crimes, followed by the investigation of a sleuth I love and trust, a curiously soothing endeavour. I know that Owen is determined to solve the crimes and that he will do everything in his power to do so.
It’s this commitment and deep sense of responsibility that pushes him to investigate. Compared with so many of the movers and shakers I read about in the news, Owen is an honorable, trustworthy person, a man who keeps his word and cares about others. I find him a reassuring companion in these troubled times. And Magda Digby, the Riverwoman…I would love to seek her out at her rock in the Ouse right about now to ask if I might just stay there under her care until COVID 19 spends itself.
How about you? What’s helping you cope?
(I hope one answer is reading A Choir of Crows! Out now!)
[†] Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Ten Speed Press 2012.