Those who know me, even a little, know that I love a good mystery. I learned to read young and quickly moved from Dr. Seuss to Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie. As I got older my reading interests branched out quite a bit and grew to include biography, history, philosophy, literary fiction and also a variety of non-fiction. But a rainy or snowy day - give me a cup of something hot, a comfy sofa with a blankie, and a mystery.
I'm certainly not a literary critic and I have no credentials which make me qualified to classify fiction writing as good or bad. But I know what I like so I can describe what makes fiction "good" for me. First, and foremost, it's characters. A good plot is necessary, yes. In a mystery, writing that keeps me guessing is good. But the biggest thing for me is the characters. I look for characters that I can connect with. They don't have to be like me, but there has to be some quality about them that I can relate to whether that be their thinking process, their attitudes or values, their background, their struggles, the things they think or wonder about.
My favorite current mystery writer is an author named Jane Haddam. She has written a couple of different series but the one that I have loved over the years stars a character named Gregor Demarkian. I read my first Gregor Demarkian book "Not a Creature was Stirring" shortly after it was published. It was Christmas break in 1990 and it seemed like a good choice for the snow and sofa business that is Minnesota in December. It was the title that caught me, of course, but it was the characters that kept me coming back book after book. For the next 28 books. That's right - 29 books in the series.
The recurring characters in the series have come to feel a little like friends. They live in a world that is far from my midwestern upbringing - East coast, close-knit ethnic (Armenian) neighborhood. They have careers (FBI, best-selling fantasy novelist, Armenian Orthodox priest) that are far away from my career in teaching human communication at the college level. Many of the characters have money or rub elbows with those who do. They really are nothing like me or my experience but the main characters think about and wonder about many of the things that I think and wonder about, particularly in regards to human nature.
A few years ago I stumbled across a blog written by the author of these books. I read it because of the name of the blog - Hildegarde. I had just finished reading a book about Hildegarde of Bingen who was a Benedictine abbess in Germany in the 12th century and I was looking for a bit more information. Somehow this blog came up in a google search?? I really can't remember. But I loved this blog and have been a pretty faithful reader over the years. The author teaches at a college and occasionally rants about student writing which I could appreciate. Many of the topics of her posts seemed to wander their way into her books - although I suppose it is the other way around as the books, most of them, had already been written by the time the blog started. She writes the blog as though she's sitting across the table talking with you. She writes her books that way too which is probably one of the reasons I like them so much. When I read one it feels like a friend telling you the story of these people she knows - and then you get to know them too - at least vicariously.
The blog had been on a bit of a hiatus but started up again this year. This week a blog post showed up entitled "The beginning of the end." The "Oh no!" came out of my mouth because I immediately jumped to the conclusion that she was announcing there would be only one more book in my beloved series and that it was about to be published. I felt disappointment and sadness and was starting to mentally write my objections so I could post a comment on the blog. Instead, Jane shared that she's been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer and that the prognosis is not good.
You know that moment when you realize you've been utterly and completely self-involved? I had that moment this week. My immediate thought when I read the blog title was about how something would impact me - in this case I felt that I would be losing a group of friends and had a "how can you do this to us?" (imagine that comment in a wail) response. Then when I got to the part where she told us what was really happening, well.
So how do you respond to something like this? This woman is not my friend or family member. I don't know her and probably woudn't recognize her if I bumped into her on the street. (Don't you always assume that author photographs on jacket covers are really someone else - a model who "looks like" what a mystery writer should look like?) She doesn't know I exist. I wouldn't have any idea of what to say to someone who has just received news like this. I don't believe any of those platitudes that people throw around in circumstances like this - 'God has a plan' 'everything happens for a reason' 'God needed another angel' - blah, blah, and bullshit. Having watched both my mother and my brothers walk through terminal cancer I don't believe that's God's plan for anyone and I don't believe that there's any reason for it either.
So why am I writing this? Because I want to say, outloud, that people have an impact on us - even if they don't know it or know us. And this woman has had an impact on me. I will miss my friends on Cavanaugh Street. I will miss the perspective she's shared through her blog. I will miss her contribution to the world of ideas. I will miss her.
3 hours ago