Why Mysteries?

I grew up in a household where my parents read a handful of different newspapers and my mother read Georgette Hyer and Agatha Christie as well as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, Thomas Mann and Margaret Mitchell.  Not at the same time, mind you, but the model of reading she set for me was broad and enlightening.

That meant I was never told what not to read, and I carried that freedom with me through my school years, reading whatever interested me for whatever reason, delving into science fiction, the history of France, dolphin studies, biographies of the Founding Fathers, you name it.  If it grabbed me, I grabbed it off the library shelf and carried it home curious and expectant.

I was often inattentive in class because I was thinking about my library books, wishing I could be home with them.  Each one seemed to open to a world so much larger, so much more fascinating and freeing than my cramped classroom.  Nowadays I would probably be diagnosed as in need of Ritalin.  What I needed was escape.

But not just from class.  My parents were Holocaust survivors and this dark tragedy too often set the tone for our household: angry, depressed.  Reading offered relief and distance, especially the alternate worlds of science fiction and history.  Mysteries promised something better once I discovered them: the assurance that things made sense, that evildoers were punished, and order could be restored.  It’s the balance Oscar Wilde mocks in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily, the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means.”

I’ve published twenty-one books and a third of those have been mysteries in the Nick Hoffman series, satires set in the world of academe. My mother developed dementia before she could see me become successful and before she could read a mystery of mine, but with each one, I’ve thought of her.  I’ve thought of a woman of wide tastes and deep education, a woman who spoke several languages, who had a rough smokey laugh–and how mysteries made her happy.  Remembering all that makes me happy.


8 Responses

  1. A truly poignant piece, Lev. How sad that your brilliant mother has never been able to read one of your mysteries–she would have been thrilled and proud. I can relate to this as a late-born, fourth child (Mother thought I was a tumor…). Both of my parents died before I published anything more than a few poems, and would have loved being able to ask friends: “Have you read my daughter’s latest novel?” Ah well. At least my four offspring can ask–if they happen to think of it. “Yeah, well, Mother’s got another book out…”)

  2. Thanks for the nostalgia trip, Lev!
    I’ve always been sorry that my mother died before I’d begun writing, and then publishing. She had everything to do with my discovery of mysteries and eventual love of them. (She suggested I read Rebecca, and Christie and Sayers, in my teens. She’d really have been into the Perseverance endeavor (much more than my sons are). I’ve tried to pass on to them my love of reading, but I think there has to be an inborn inclination in the child as well.

  3. Lev, I am sorrowful every time I read that your mother missed seeing her aptitude realized in your life’s work. I can relate to the desire to be with your books more than your schoolmates. So glad you get to spend your life with them now.

  4. Simple and sweet. I think of darkness and of hiding in the closet at night to read as a child, hours on end and against bedtime rules. I am moved by your story.

  5. My mother did get to see me become a published author before she died (and she was proud), but she never knew her grandson. I guess we all have sorrows. I read her Agatha Christie books when I was a kid, and was hooked on mysteries for life. And I loved Georgette Heyer. Your post definitely struck a chord for me.

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