xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mystery novels: a favored fictional diversion from pandemic reality | COMMENTARY

FILE - In this April 3, 2013, file photo, author Mary Higgins Clark sign copies of her book "Daddy's Gone A Hunting" at the Simon & Schuster office in New York. Clark, 92, was the tireless and long-reigning "Queen of Suspense" whose tales of women beating the odds made her one of the world's most popular writers. She died Jan. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE - In this April 3, 2013, file photo, author Mary Higgins Clark sign copies of her book "Daddy's Gone A Hunting" at the Simon & Schuster office in New York. Clark, 92, was the tireless and long-reigning "Queen of Suspense" whose tales of women beating the odds made her one of the world's most popular writers. She died Jan. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this op-ed, an automated editing program had mistakenly changed the word “heroines” to “heroes” so the text read “heroes and heroes” in several places. The Sun regrets the error.

Many of us have been reading more than ever as we shelter at home during COVID. Indeed, one discovers no dearth of good books; however, during this perilous period, I find the most satisfying reads are mystery novels.

Advertisement

Not only do they offer a vicarious escape from sickness, seclusion, divisiveness and disappointment, but the best mysteries are well written, and they move quickly — in contrast to the often sluggish pace of our daily lives.

Mystery novels can offer a glimpse of what life should be like. That is, the fictional heroes and heroines are honorable and trustworthy, unlike some leaders we have today.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Moreover, in these escapist mysteries, the heroes and heroines never die; in fact, they often reappear in subsequent novels. Sadly, however, many of our real-life heroes and heroines, especially the doctors and nurses and their support staffs, have died, succumbing to COVID. Many other good people have sickened and died too — which is why it is often more satisfying these days to immerse oneself in fiction rather than the real world.

Louise Penny, an award-winning Canadian writer of 17 same-character mysteries, deserves the proverbial prize for diversity, something we need to honor in our own country. Her main character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, and his wife, Reine-Marie, are French Canadians living in the fictional village of Three Pines, south of Montreal. The Gamaches’ close friends and family include Olivier and Gabri, a gay married couple who own a gourmet bistro; their son-in-law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, a recovering drug addict; Myrna, the beloved Black book store owner; and Ruth, an aged mentally challenged poet, who lives with her pet duck, Rosa, and whose favorite word is “f---!”

Like Louise Penny, John Grisham also sets his mysteries in the world where he grew up — the deep South, specifically Mississippi. As a former litigator, Mr. Grisham, usually includes at least one major trial in his mysteries, often centering on injustice, particularly racial injustice. Mr. Grisham’s favorite lawyer and alter ego, Jake Brigance, after many cliffhanging experiences, always wins his cases.

In David Baldacci’s mysteries, usually featuring FBI and CIA agents, the heroes and heroines endure life-threatening struggles, but eventually emerge victorious. Mr. Baldacci’s characters, who usually work in teams — a man and a woman, equally fit physically and mentally — also reappear in subsequent novels. Set in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, his novels resemble Ms. Penny’s and Mr. Grisham’s, regarding hometowns.

Advertisement

Although Janet Evanovich’s numerous mystery novels provide much lighter, often laugh-at-loud scenarios, they, too, are New York Times bestsellers and are set where Ms. Evanovich grew up, in and around Trenton, New Jersey. (She is a graduate of Douglass College, my alma mater as well.)

Her main characters, who re-appear in nearly every book, are two women, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (Ms. Evanovich’s alter ego), and Stephanie’s sidekick, Lula. Together, they solve the crimes and catch the culprits.

Mary Higgins Clark, the “Queen of Suspense,” is another New Jerseyite — Northern, New Jersey, close enough to New York City — where her mystery novels take place. After a prolific career, 56 best-selling books, Clark passed away in January 2020 at age 92. Her last few novels were co-authored by much younger Alafair Burke. Thus, I assume the novels, featuring television producer Laurie Moran, who solves the mysteries, will continue.

Frankly, no list of mystery writers would be complete without James Patterson, the most prolific of all, having authored more than 200 books since 1976. (Mr. Patterson often uses co-authors, increasing his output.) Not only are Mr. Patterson’s books easy to read and extremely clever, but he also celebrates fairness and diversity — even while describing some of the grizzliest crimes. Of his several series featuring the same characters, my favorites are the Alex Cross series and The Women’s Murder Club series.

Alex Cross, a Black detective in Washington, D.C., is also a psychologist, specializing in abnormal and forensic psychology, with a degree from Johns Hopkins. Alex is righteous, caring and charismatic. His family includes wife Briana, also a police officer, their three amazing children and his intrepid grandmother, still in her late 80s in the 28 books thus far in the series.

Mr. Patterson’s other special series, The Women’s Murder Club (21 books so far) written with Maxine Paetro, is a long-time favorite. The “club” consists of four San Francisco women, all best friends: Lindsay Boxer, a homicide detective; Cindy Thomas, a star reporter; Dr. Claire Washburn, the chief medical examiner; and Yuki Castellano, a district attorney. Ms. Boxer and Ms. Thomas are white; Ms. Washburn is Black, and Ms. Castellano is Asian.

There are unsavory characters in these fictional worlds, and occasionally disease and disasters. But the good guys and gals are celebrated; they always win and most of all, they give us hope for our future and a break from our present.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.” Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement