Catherine Robson’s accomplished debut fiction, the short story “Just Desserts,” appears in EQMM’s January 2016 issue, in the Department of First Stories. The Southern California native is a lifelong fan of the mystery in all of its forms, as is evident from the following post. She also has a longstanding interest in classic cinema, and once worked in the film industry. Her current novel-in-progress, set during the time of the Hollywood blacklist, draws on her knowledge of both. —Janet Hutchings
When I was eleven, my brother took me to a Russ Meyer film, unbeknownst to my parents, of course. It was Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! That evening ranks in my memory with seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Women in Love, as moments of awakening that were at once disturbing and ecstatic. There was a huge world out there beyond my very conservative and rather repressed family, and I wanted to explore it. Decades later, I came upon an article about Meyer and it started me wondering just what his outré films might have in common with my favorite genre and with authors like Agatha Christie.
The theories about why we love mysteries are legion. My own reasons have always had something to do with the comfort of having resolution and some measure of justice, for a few hours at least, in contrast to real life where we have precious little of either. But now that I’ve lived a bit and have reached “a certain age” there’s a deeper allure in the pages of mysteries: the chimeric nature of the characters that inhabit them, the revelations of secret motivations and misunderstood actions, the characters we hate whose hidden virtues are revealed, Snape-like, in their final moments, and the heroes who turn out to be false.
The noir incarnations of the mystery are, not surprisingly, just my cup of tea, or acid. As I write my mystery set during that very noir era in our recent past, the Red Scare and the blacklist, the similarity between political delusion and self-deception was always on my mind, and deception and illusion are the heart and soul of mystery.
Perhaps I love this aspect of the mystery because I’m such an incompetent judge of character. I remember taking a personality test decades ago and rating a zero on the judgment scale. It was not a mistake. Being analytic to a fault combined with an overweening imagination has meant that I am skilled at seeing both sides of an issue, and also at fabricating a myriad of excuses for a friend’s lies or a lover’s betrayal. It also makes it hard to decide what color to paint the bathroom. While some project their shameful, shadow selves onto others unjustly, I’ve tended to do the opposite, assuming that most people share my better qualities and can be trusted to act accordingly, a prescription for disaster. Calling a lout a lout is not easy for me. In that respect I’m the perfect mystery reader, always ready to nibble at each red herring and gasp at each revelation of truth.
Mysteries are an apologia for the confusing and illusory nature of human beings, and for that reason I find great comfort in them. Unlike other species who are remarkably dependable as a whole, humans are unpredictable, whimsical and inconsistent. When I pick up a good mystery, I know I’ll find a kindred spirit, either in the narrator, the protagonist, or another character, because they will share my questions, ambiguity and confusion.
Of course, talking in general about mysteries is a bit absurd, so varied and unruly are its incarnations. From Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, to Christie and P.D. James, I’ve been an omnivorous consumer. If there is a common denominator it may be that, more often than not, there is a body. Even people like me who are dedicated pacifists, animal and human-rights advocates who take every spider outside and donate indefatigably to charities, seem drawn to a genre filled with corpses and violent offenders. In terms of depth psychology, this makes perfect sense, of course. Our shadow selves want a voice lest they wreak real-world havoc, another benefit of fiction in general. As a writer, I’ve discovered that no matter how quaint or innocuous my initial ideas are, every short story or novel seems to gain a body along the way. For this reason, I will probably never become a children’s book author. It’s for the best.
As for Russ Meyer, king of the sexploitation film who, as far as I know, never wrote a cozy, and Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple nevertheless dealt with similar themes of sex and violence, their settings, styles and effects on their audiences couldn’t be more different. My taste lies firmly with the latter, but then I prefer 1940s peplum suits and a strong cup of tea to leather pants and whiskey.
Yet, Russ Meyer with his Amazonian lasses, and Agatha Christie with her decorous and tasteful protagonists, have both brought us victims who rise triumphant from oppression and wreak the kind of vengeance about which we may fantasize but which we, quite rightly, do not allow ourselves to seek. So, Faster, Miss Marple! Deduce! Deduce!