For one thing, I don't remember having a "life" in high school, so it's great to borrow someone else's. I read about social anxieties, rivalries, boy-girl agonies, dances and parties, and all those other details of high school life in part to fill in huge gaps in my own experience. I kept a daily diary starting halfway through my freshman year, but that doesn't help me figure out what a "normal" high school life might have been. In those years, my home life was one crisis after another, with both my parents drinking, and the older of my two sisters repeatedly running away from home, eventually committed to a mental institution from which she escaped, only to be murdered on the streets of Chicago before her fifteenth birthday.
For me, during those years, school was my refuge--the classroom and the library, specifically. The fewer friends, the better--that way I didn't have to explain stuff. (A couple of my teachers, and a couple of guidance counselors, knew a bit of the picture, and in my last year I was blessed with two good friends as well. In a wonderful burst of insight, a librarian whose name is recorded in my diary--Willett?--gave a book of Langston Hughes' poetry to the school library in my sister's memory.)
Hold Still's heroine Caitlin becomes socially paralyzed when her best friend Ingrid commits suicide. Her burrowing into safe anonymity reminded me of my more or less permanent determination in high school to be anonymous to all but a select few. There are lots of differences in our two stories (aside from mine not being fiction!)--her immobility follows a specific trauma, whereas I hid as a matter of general policy, and was actually happy most of the time. She's not particularly ashamed of her parents, but mine drank constantly and fought constantly. But there was a moment of instant connection between our two stories--when Caitlin's friend Taylor asked her how Ingrid killed herself. My version of this story came on the first school day after Ellen's death. I was sitting in a phys ed class assembly--a lecture on not doing drugs--and more or less drifting along in my own world, when I heard the coach talking about an Evanston Township High School girl who'd been found murdered in Chicago. I felt the instant gut-wrenching imperative to interrupt him and tell everyone she was my sister before the coach made connections in his sermon that he had no right to make. I hated being that exposed, but had no choice.
Caitlin wrestles with guilt over not having revealed the fact that Ingrid cut herself even to the point of carving words on her stomach. Here too I have a point of contact, being aware that people I liked (from a distance) were clearly becoming alcoholics; I had no idea what to do about it. I loved Caitlin's and Ingrid's involvement in their photography class ("hold still"); for me, a class in television production in my senior year was my first peek into the world of creativity beyond text. The birth and growth of new friendships for Caitlin in the novel were believable; I'm grateful to have had some of the same experiences before my high school years ended.
Since then I've gone on to read the first book in Dicey's series, Homecoming, and many other books by this author, whose ability to convey unsentimental truths in realistic kindness and love is almost unique. My own mother's mental illness and its devastating impact on our family made me ready to learn how another group of young people met a similar challenge. And, along the way, Dicey and her family also managed to fill me in on some of the "normalcy" of growing up that I don't remember experiencing for myself.
When the Adam Dalgliesh novels of P.D. James were serialized and presented on television, I remember that the American packaging of those stories by WGBH Boston included brief comments from the author herself. She said in one episode (I'm going from memory here) that the attraction of the murder mystery is the restoration of the moral order. Creation has been wrenched out of order by the commission of murder, and we derive satisfaction from a resolution that puts it right again. If I remember correctly, Dalgliesh was himself an agnostic, but that doesn't mean he couldn't be used as an agent of Godly justice.
Along those same lines, I'm reflecting on why I found the two novels I've recently read by Jo Nesbø, Nemesis and The Snowman, so satisfying. I don't think in fact that P.D. James's thesis works for me here. I want the crimes to be solved, of course--but it's mostly because I like the hero and don't want him to fail. There's a conflict driving the narrative, and I want my guy to prevail. But that's almost a side issue. In The Snowman, the plot is so intricate that I often lost track of details and plunged on anyway, trusting that things would make sense in the end. (The story chains together several candidate villains, and I think that is all I want to reveal here.) The real attraction of the novel is the recovering/relapsing alcoholic and workaholic Harry Hole.
Bottum's essay in Books and Culture considers W.H. Auden's commentary on detective fiction. "In Auden's reading, mysteries are essentially theological, for they concern, at root, innocence and guilt as states of being—as metaphysical realities." Bottum assesses Auden's commentary and finds it wanting, basically because there is no primordially innocent stage upon which the drama of violation, guilt, and justice play out as the detective narrative progresses from murder to investigation to arrest and trial and--presumably--a classic execution by hanging. For me, that stage is actually inside Harry Hole's head. The main drama is his reflections on his own cynicism, addictions, betrayals, and central values. Much of this drama is surprisingly biblical, considering the near absence of actual religious language. All of this intimate drama serves to increase the reader's investment in a successful outcome, even though we know that, to Hole, all satisfactions are fragile and temporary.
More righteous links:
(After September 11) "The silence of Holy Saturday."
Where is Senator Hatfield when we need him? "To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service."
Damaris Zehner: "Anger at the poor."
The Academic Forum for Peace: Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Kallistos Ware is one of the Golden Jubilee medal winners.
Education and character: "What if the secret to success is failure?"
"Plain Text/Information Density"--the sheer efficiency of the humble word.
Permit us a long-distance boast: "Multnomah County Library is number two in the nation."
"Arctic ice coverage shrinks to near record low--Russian meteorologists."
Several commenters mention that Windows 8 looks a lot like Ubuntu Linux's Unity desktop. Here's more about what's coming up for Ubuntu and Unity (beta available now).
More from Charlie Musselwhite: