Right now I’m in the middle of an Agatha Christie marathon. I was given about a dozen or more of her mysteries when the local used book store went out of business. With many more books than I had shelf space for, I stuffed them in corners where they collected dust bunnies. I even gave the ones I’d read to a gal I saw reading Murder on the Orient Express at our local swimming pool. Murder mysteries are my favorite genre, and apparently, from the proliferation of Mystery book clubs, and TV crime dramas, they are popular with the general public as well. According to the Kansas Historical website, murder has the ability to make an otherwise boring prairie in Labette County seem mysterious when we learn that in 1872, Kate Bender, an attractive woman who advertised as a spiritualist and medium, along with her family, opened a small inn, took in travelers, bashed in their heads with a hammer and threw the bodies, divested of their valuables, into the cellar. Oh, and I think their throats got cut somewhere in the process.
Even that native son, John Brown, who with his sons, took broadswords and attacked five proslavery sympathizers near Pottawatomie Creek in 1856, is something of a folk hero. I’ve recently seen his somewhat peeved-looking face portrayed on T-shirts celebrating 150 years of Kansas statehood, and his name adorning a blend of coffee at the Pony Espresso in Marysville. You can see a portrait of the man, Bible in one hand and rifle in the other, in the capitol building at Topeka. The blood and pain of his crimes (as well as the crimes of those he opposed) have been washed by the years into mythology. He, Kate Bender, the Dalton gang, Jesse James, all the notorious killers, though once alive and guilty of heinous crimes, now live in the realm of the attractive and mysterious. You can see memorabilia in a museum, read about their exploits on the pages of the historical society websites, but nothing will bring their crimes out of the deliciousness of distant legend and into the reality of present life and most of us have the sense not to try.
Where does this come from, this love of a good murder story? I confess, the majority of books I read for fun, involve murders, kidnappings etc, though I would never wish to be involved in such dealings. In fact, I’m told that, for people who have a loved one murdered, one of the joys they are forever robbed of is the joy of reading or watching a good murder mystery. Murder for them has crossed the line and they may not taste of it without knowing the full horrors. The closest I come to this is when, late at night, I look up from the book, suddenly aware that this is no longer fun, and the crimes on the pages have visited my soul. I start to hear strange noises outside. Though I know the tension is on the page and not in my life, I have a terrible compulsion to check the doors and make sure my daughter is sleeping safely in bed. When fictional murder is at its best, I have the delicious thrill of the mystery with just a touch of its fear. The truth is that murder mystery readers and watchers carefully nibble around the corners of murder, perhaps to assure ourselves that the bad guy gets caught in the end, that the disorder of murder will resolve into the order of justice–in the nick of time–if only we hang on until the last chapter. In real life there are seemingly random details occurring in a endlessly messy train trailing off into the past, and what I long for is that someone would weave them together into an intricate plot where not one jot is extraneous but all move into a whole. What we long for–not just in looking at the world’s evil but also in enduring its messiness– is wholeness. And that’s the climax of the murder mystery plot. In those last chapters all details make sense: why the man went to the drugstore, who the woman was calling in the dead of night, what a paper of random numbers is about, and where the murder weapon is. Even those legendary murderers were found out and their stories finished. History records that Kate Bender and her family were forced to escape suspicion by disappearing suddenly leaving their worldly goods behind. John Brown was hanged for his crimes; the Dalton gang was finally brought to justice on the streets of Coffeyville. However, the who, what, when, where, and how of my own novel of life aren’t apparent to me now, but they will be. Right now, I’m the mystery book with the last several chapters missing, and maybe some pages in the middle as well! So, as Ben Franklin wrote in his epitaph, the “Work shall not be Lost;/ For it will (as he believ’d) Appear once More/ In a New and More Elegant Edition/ Revised and Corrected/ By the Author.” And until then, there’s always Auntie Agatha’s books to read, not to mention the Kansas Historical Website to browse!