Eureka, California resident Linda Stansberry is an award-winning journalist who has recently been devoting more of her time to fiction writing. Her EQMM debut, “The Hidden Places,” appears in our current issue (May/June 2021). She’s had one previous professional fiction publication, in The Saturday Evening Post, and is currently at work polishing two novels for submission. In this moving post, she talks about what got her hooked on reading and mysteries—and about a remarkable person from whom she learned so much. —Janet Hutchings
I learned about murder from Mom. She always kept a stack of creased paperbacks with lurid cover illustrations on her nightstand, and at the tender age of eight I began sneaking them into the back pocket of my jeans to read under the covers with a flashlight. By the time I was thirteen I knew all about crimes of passion, crimes of greed, lone assassins, double jeopardy, triple homicides, arsenic, formaldehyde, chloroform, ballistics, forensics, rigor mortis, and murderous clowns. I credit my desire to write fiction to the joy we got as a family from reading and any success I’ve had as a writer to the lessons absorbed from reading lots of good books. Paramount among them is this rule: A well-written mystery is one that’s fair in a way that life is not.
Mom liked to recount the story of the only book she’s ever burned, the story of a Wyoming frontiersman who searches for his kidnapped family for the entire novel, only to remember at the end that he’d once told them to hide in the cellar if their cabin were attacked. In the final chapter he moves a heavy chest off of the cellar door and finds their skeletons below.
“I was so mad,” Mom said, “I threw that book in the fireplace. That’s the only time I’ve ever done that.”
No fictional murder has ever shocked me the way the image of my mom throwing a novel away did; books were respected in our household. But her point was made. It may be clever to take your reader on an odyssey across nineteenth-century Wyoming only to reveal at the end that the thing they were searching for was never really missing, but is it fair? No, I don’t think so.
A good mystery is like a good chess game. The reader should be able to see all the pieces and know the rules, to perhaps spot some strategies that could result in a checkmate. This doesn’t make the game less challenging; it just makes it fair. In chess, you don’t move a bishop and reveal a cellar door no one knew was part of the game. A friend once lent me a book in which it turned out the murderer was the narrator, suffering from amnesia. I was left wondering what I’d done to offend her.
I’m thinking about all of this as I leave Mom’s hospital room and drive, nerves jangling, to my motel. No author would write a story this quotidian and cruel—weeks of increasing, mysterious pain, a CT scan that shows gathering shadows on the lungs, a midnight flight to a city four hours away to be treated for a pulmonary embolism, all in the midst of a global pandemic. When I leave her side, Mom is sleeping, her fine brown hair stuck to her salty forehead. If this was a movie the doctor would be at our side with a diagnosis, a lifespan, a solution. But this is life, and it will be weeks before we know precisely what is wrong, weeks in which the tumors will grow quickly and persistently, the way bruise-colored storm clouds tumble and swell to cover the sky.
I have never not had a mom. Now I see the thousand tiny corrections, lessons, stories, examples that have left their design on my life. She is the reason I tenderize venison with the back of a knife; the reason I know how to write in cursive and play poker. She is the reason I write about murder.
The motel is dirty, loud. A child’s tricycle sits tipped on its side in the courtyard. I get my key from the indifferent clerk and carry Mom’s walker to my room. I leave the door open, walk inside and look in the closet, pull the shower curtain aside and make sure I’m alone. When this is done I can close the door, sit down on the bed and rub my eyes, waiting for the storm to break.
This is something she taught me—leave the door open, check the bathroom. A woman traveling alone can’t be too safe. Always carry cab fare in your purse. When you go out to eat with a man, watch how he treats the waitress. Someday you, too, might be the last thing on his mind.
My mom endured an oversized amount of tragedy over her lifetime, stuff that would send some people to the bottle or the grave, stuff I won’t betray her privacy by discussing. She came out the other side a tough, witty, shrewd woman who found escape in fictional murder. I think about this often, how she and I and so many others can only fully relax when reading about hacksaws and blue-tinged fingernails. You would think that with everything we have to fear from real life, whether it’s cancer or divorce or the very real possibility that a stranger will attack us in a cheap hotel room, we would want something with softer edges. But we want murder, and I think it’s because murder mysteries have all of the truth, and none of the unfairness, of real life. The truth is that life is dangerous, and we’re all going to die someday. The unfairness is that more often than not there’s no beauty or justice in how we go.
For most of my life, my mom tried to equip me with the tools I needed to survive, knowing even as she did so that it was all a crapshoot, that it was never going to work out clean the way it does in the books we read. But she did a good job, and that’s what I told her as I pushed the hair back from her forehead and said goodnight.
“It’s not like I’m dying tomorrow,” she replied, a half-smile on her lips.
“No, of course not,” I replied. “I just wanted to let you know, as soon as I could.”
She smiled and went back to sleep.
Valerie Stansberry was born on January 24, 1948. She died on May 5, 2021. She fought until the very end.