British mysteries and loving my shadow...

Over the past few days I've been getting some wonderful "British mystery writers" tips from my blogging buddies all over the globe.  I am, of course, a total English mystery geek. I not only love the "classics" from Agatha Christie, GK Chesteron, PD James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Anne Perry and Elizabeth George, but am knocked out by some of the new writers including: Ian Rankin, John Harvey, Tana French, Lynda La Plante, Susan Hill and Denise Mina. (I can't leave out their Canadian cousin, Louise Penny, as she is a favorite, too.) 

What's more, one of our favorite early evening entertainments is to sip some red wine and watch one of the Masterpiece Mystery productions - or their equivalents - on Netflix streaming. (Currently we're wrapping up AMC's, "The Killing" that is edgy and has some great characters.)  And in full discloser mode, I can't wait for the season premiere of season five of "Mad Men," but for very different reasons!

So what's the deal?  About 20 years ago I went through a "Dirty Harry" phase - damn, but I love the way Clint Eastwood plays that dude - because I needed/wanted to see the good guys win in a world of moral relativity.  I was involved in the rough and tumble world of Cleveland Board of Education politics at the time - a place of rapidly shifting sands given all the patronage - so an evening where Dirty Harry growled, "Do you feel lucky today... well, do ya, punk?" did my heart good.  But I eventually left that work - mostly for the sake of my own soul - and with it went Dirty Harry.  (Truth be told, I still watch those movies from time to time.)

There are at least these ideas floating around ~ and I must admit they all resonate with me on some level.

+ First, mysteries - and British mysteries as distinct from American true crime stories - are both a bit exotic and portray death in a rational way.  Americans are terrified of death.  We hide from it, sanitize it and are constantly shocked whenever it breaks into our world.  Writer James Frey notes:

Death always seems to defy reason. A young girl drowns in a pool. Why didn't the parents have a higher fence? A young boy is killed in a crosswalk. Why weren't there traffic lights? A young mother gets cancer. Must have been something in her diet, too many hamburgers, bad genes, not enough fiber in her breakfast cereal. We're desperate at the deepest psychological level to make sense out of death. Death seems so damn irrational. Ah, but not in a mystery. A mystery makes death rational.

+ Second, the English mystery generally follows a formula that was set in the Sherlock Holmes. PBS outlines their form like this:

The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a "closed setting" such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it comes to light that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the "Watson" at the end.

To my mind, both insights ring true for me:  I know that there is no rationality to death - in my work I see people one day only to find them dead the next - and my spirituality is built upon living fully in the moment because that is all we have.  And yet, at the end of the day, I like to step outside myself for a bit and wander around a world that makes some sense, yes?  PD James has said, "Mysteries give us the restoration of order" and that rings true.

As does the second point - albeit with a twist:  I think that British mysteries also invite the reader into an awareness that even the best of us are complicated and even sometimes profoundly broken souls.  And that this truth is not always apparent on the surface.  Think of the grizzly murder inside a beautiful home.  Or the complexities raging through DI Rebus as he compromises with the crime boss of Edinburgh whom he hates to accomplish a higher good.  Or the cocaine obsession of Sherlock Holmes.  Or the inner terror Detective Cassie Maddox has to face down in pursuit of her worst nightmare.  Or the ever nuanced way Louise Penny uncovers the shadow side of even our favorite characters in the Inspector Gamache novels.

In other words, what you see is NOT always what you get.  Judge not lest ye be judged, yes?  Together this suggests yet one more paradox: an aching for order amidst the chaos living alongside an awareness that the darkness is always woven into the light of our human experience.  No wonder I love St. Paul: now we see as through a glass darkly - only later shall we see face to face. 

Richard Rohr spoke to this in another way in this morning's reflection on a spirituality of descent that also rings true to me:

The spirituality behind the Twelve-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous is a “low Church” approach to  evangelization and healing that is probably our only hope in a suffering world  of six-and-a-half billion people. 

Our suffering is psychological, relational and addictive: the suffering of people who are comfortable on the outside but oppressed and empty within. It is a  crisis of meaninglessness, which leads us to try to find meaning in  possessions, perks, prestige, and power, which are always outside of the self. It doesn’t work. So we turn to ingesting food,  drink or drugs, and we become mass consumers to fill the empty hole within us.

The  Twelve-Step Program walks us back out of our addictive society. Like all steps  toward truth and Spirit, it leads us downward. Bill Wilson and his A.A.  movement have shown us that the real  power is when we no longer seek, need, or abuse outer power because we have  found real power within. They rightly call it our “Higher Power.”

I am grateful to rest in the love of God even when I don't always grasp the magnitude of that love.  And I sense a blessing in the mystries, too that give me a chance to wrestle with my shadows in a playfull way. And now it is time to try to impose some more order on my kitchen - and bathrooms - and study... and then finish up the day with another mystery. 


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