death in a box

I’m in the middle of reading two books which have made me think about death — and specifically death in murder mysteries (although neither book is a murder mystery).

One book is Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. After I wrote about “Papa” a few weeks ago, I decided to read Across the River… (although the general opinion seems to be that it’s lousy) — just because it was the only Hemingway novel I’ve never read (not counting the posthumous ones). It’s very much concerned with death — the protagonist, Colonel Richard Cantwell, has a heart condition and knows he’s going to die very soon.

The other book is The Girl in the Back, by Laura Davis-Chanon, a memoir of her days in a New Wave band called the Student Teachers. The Student Teachers were all around sixteen years old, and they were quite successful on the local New York scene, and then beyond.

At one point in the book, Laura is the drummer in an increasingly successful band, basically homeless, attending her high school classes but not always keeping up with her assignments, and seems to be surviving on a diet of White Russians and occasional lines of cocaine.

Being familiar with rock & roll and its related lifestyles, it’s easy to tell that trouble may be on the horizon. (Also, full disclosure: Laura and I are not friends, but we were acquaintances back in those days and we had friends in common, so I know that something else bad is on the horizon for her, too, not related to drugs and alcohol.)

So, both books have a certain ominous quality. They are different, of course, since Colonel Cantwell is clearly going to die, and Laura Davis is obviously going to survive since she recently wrote the book. Plus, one book is intensely concerned with being old, and the other is about being very young. But they both have a similar mood in the middle of the book — I want to find out what happens next, but I dread it a little, too.

Murder mysteries are obviously concerned with death, but they tend to have the death at or near the beginning (unless they have more than one), which means they often don’t have that same quality of dread. This is probably not an original thought, but in reading these two books it occurred to me that this is why murder mysteries can be so much fun, even though they’re centered on death. The death is contained and relatively safe, like seeing a dangerous animal in a zoo, or in a movie.

And another point is that, in murder mysteries, there is generally the expectation that the death will be explained at the end. It won’t be random or capricious or impersonal, as it often is in real life.

After all, how else is it possible that there could be “cozy” mysteries (which is sort of what I’m writing these days)? There aren’t “cozy” post-apocalyptic disaster stories, or “cozy” zombie horror stories (to mention two other death-centered genres).

It’s good to think about this now, since I’m currently tossing around ideas for the next story in the series I’m writing. In a series of stories like this, there needs to be variety, but there also seems to be some consistency in the underlying assumptions.

If you’re reading a book of Sherlock Holmes short stories, it doesn’t work if in one story he’s solving a mystery on the moon.

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