Samantha Allen’s first published fiction, the story “Some Kind of Lonely,” appears in the current issue of EQMM, March/April 2018. The author has worked as an advertising copywriter, a college writing instructor, and a bookseller. She is currently employed at a public library, using her spare time to complete her first novel. As you’ll see from this post, she’s a knowledgable and passionate reader of fiction as well as an emerging writer of it.—Janet Hutchings
I’ve long loved reading mysteries and stories of suspense. It all began with Nancy Drew, and after I was allowed into the adult section of the public library I devoured Agatha Christie novels, Chandler, and other classics, but I remember specifically reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for the first time as a teenager: The unnamed narrator spoke beyond the page it seemed, her haunted voice rattling around inside my head long after I finished the book. To this day, so much of my love for mysteries boils down to their intensity. In mysteries, the stakes are high. I enjoy a narrator that draws you in with the promise of a secret to be revealed, a deep dive into the darkest of human emotions. I like writing that aches. Particularly first-person writing that feels confessional, and while the phrase “confessional” has sometimes been used derisively, code for overindulgent writing, the confession in crime fiction is a staple, a distillation of truth at the end of a twisted journey. And in these stories, the self is as much the mystery as it is who has killed the victim.
It’s not the how, but the why, that interests me most. Mysteries usually conclude with a satisfying reveal, explained in-depth by the detective or the guilty party himself. Often the protagonist’s handling of their emotional baggage is necessary to the solution. In one of my favorite novels, Faithful Place by Tana French, Detective Frank Mackey must go home (literally and figuratively) to solve the case. This requires a sort of personal honesty, a faceoff between his intellectual self and his emotional self. Frank must ask himself whether or not he can truly believe a member of his own family could kill, and when faced with a confession it morphs into a brutal examination of fate, class and circumstance. In real life, of course, we don’t often get a chance to understand another person’s motivations, or are they so clear—that is also the allure of the mystery novel.
Confessions are especially fascinating in the ways the guilty seek to justify their means. Take the narrator of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His desire to confess is driven by his guilty conscience, yes, but also by his vanity, his need to explain that he could commit the perfect crime and to assure us he isn’t in fact mad. The short story “High Lonesome,” by Joyce Carol Oates, is also written from the point of view of a man confessing to murder. As the narrator describes the triggering wrongdoing—his cousin’s betrayal of “Pop,” the stepfather whom he detests but at once reminds him of himself—it becomes clear that he was motivated by anger, jealousy and inferiority, but also by love. His emotions are too much for him; seeking an outlet he reacts violently. Yet after the fact his pain is only amplified, for how lonely it must be to hold the weight of that knowledge inside you. “The only people I still love are the ones I’ve hurt. I wonder if it’s the same with you?” begins the story. The address feels as vulnerable as an exposed nerve. The first time I read it, it gave me chills. The reader is propelled toward the terrifying end by the force of the narrator’s pain.
If not from the point of view of a murderer, many first person mystery stories give one the sense that the speaker is trying to bear witness to their own trauma or to the collective trauma of their community. To somehow give narrative shape to trauma—as if by examining traumatic events in a causal way we can ascribe them meaning. And, too, sharing these stories makes us feel less alone. In “Disaster Stamps of Pluto,” by Louise Erdrich, the narrator is an octogenarian and country doctor recording stories for the town’s historical society newsletter: “I am becoming the repository of many untold stories such as people will finally tell when they know that there is no use in keeping secrets, or when they realize that all that’s left of a place will one day reside in documents, and they want those papers to reflect the truth.” She goes on to record the “dramas of note” that have happened in the town, in particular that of a family brutally murdered in their home, the sole survivor an infant found in a crib, the killer never caught. In the present day, her one friend, Neve, is moving away having confessed to her family’s rare stamp collection forgery and deciding to take the money. She continues, “An extremely touchy case came my way about twenty years ago, and I have submerged the knowledge of its truth. I have never wanted to think of it. But now, as with Neve, my story knocks with insistence, and I remember my patient.” She reveals that she is in fact the infant survivor of the slain family and second, that the patient whose life she saved was likely the killer. Beyond disgust and cruel irony, for the narrator what does it mean that she saved the life of the man that murdered her family? She is inconclusive, but she nonetheless feels the need to chronicle it, to tell how it makes her feel. The story is less about the grisly crime and more about the act of telling—if not to explain the horrors that happened, to find some resonance in her life afterward. Her story “knocks with insistence” because she knows that soon, she will be truly alone.
In writing a post about works that have inspired me, it occurs to me that the reasons I love reading mysteries are also the reasons I love to write stories: the sense of urgency and the desire for connection. I was in a fiction workshop once when my professor asked the class, “Why do you write?” He was met with blank, terrified stares. “If you can’t answer that maybe you shouldn’t be here,” he said. I confess it stirred a minor crisis in me: Was I wasting my time? I can’t remember what prompted his question to us that day, but I remember thinking about my answer for a long time afterward, and what kept coming to me was only that I felt I had to write. Because when I’m not writing I feel as though a pressure valve in my chest keeps tightening. Like I have a secret that is physically weighing on me. I want to tell you about the way the sun slants through the yellowed curtains in an old house, how it makes me feel sad and happy to think of this place. I want to tell you of the smoke smell in the wind, the way that wind flattens the grass and charges the air. I write because I feel less lonely when I chronicle the places I’ve loved, the fears, hopes and wants I’ve felt, and too there is the lightning strike of recognition when I encounter them in the words of others. So I get up early to write in my journal before I leave for work. So I stay up late, reading one more chapter after one last chapter.