In the past year or so there has been a great falling-off in my reading, from four or five books a month to none. The work, fifty hours or more a week at the paragraph factory and two mornings a week at Loyola during the academic year, has left me with less ability to focus at nighttime, my reading time. Too tired, embarrassed to admit to a resort to television.
Today, laid up with a vile head cold, I actually have some time and attention all my own, and, happily, Penguin—bless its heart—is reissuing Georges Simenon’s Maigret mysteries in paperback. I’ve just finished Maigret Goes to School, freshly admiring Simenon’s economy of prose and psychological insight.
Murder mysteries operate in the same way as fairy tales in Bettelheim’s explanation or the structure of comedy; they allow you to experience disorder and the darkness of human impulses without actually touching it, and then they restore you to order at the end.
What I particularly enjoy in murder mysteries is the counter-world of order established to maintain that balance. Simenon recounts the number of pipes Maigret smokes, the glasses of wine he drinks, the number of times he nips into the Brasserie Dauphine.
The same pattern shows up elsewhere. In Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, no matter what menace Holmes encounters, he always returns to 221B Baker Street, to the cigars in the coal-scuttle and pipe tobacco in the Persian slipper, and Mrs. Hudson waiting.
In Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, Wolfe is always just coming down from tending to the orchids at the top floor of his brownstone on West 35th Street to sit at his desk and ring for beer.
Kinsey Milhone always returns to her snug studio apartment in a converted garage or sits down to pastries with Henry Pitts, her landlord, in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series.
And Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is always able to unravel puzzles by relating the circumstances to the people she knows in St. Mary Mead.
We like to visit the dark side, and we also like to come home.
If you’ll pardon me, Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti mystery is waiting for me upstairs.