Head Trips (by L.S. Kunz)

L.S. Kunz  has received awards for her short stories and middle-grade fiction, including the Bronze Typewriter from the League of Utah Writers, but her debut story in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s March/April 2023 issue, “Midnight Run,” is her first professionally published work of adult fiction. It’s a heart-pounding thriller that you won’t want to miss. In this post, the author points to some things mystery fiction can teach us that pertain to real life.  —Janet Hutchings

A few years back, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of The Devil in the White City. I hadn’t read Erik Larson before, and I had almost no interest in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Still, I trusted my friend, so I opened the book. That was Saturday morning. The laundry didn’t get done that weekend, but Erik Larson’s masterpiece did. I couldn’t put it down.

I had a similar experience reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a love song to 1980s Savannah, with its mossy oaks, shady squares, and unforgettable residents. Both books are true crime where murder is an excuse to immerse you in a time and place as unique as the characters who live there.

In The Monster of Florence: A True Story, Douglas Preston, with the help of his friend and fellow investigator Mario Spezi, weaves a similar tale. A series of unsolved murders provide the backdrop to explore Florence’s cramped cobblestone streets and the sweeping Tuscan countryside.

With Preston for a guide, you bask in the glow of Florence’s Renaissance past and pick through the debris of history right up to the early 2000s when Preston fulfilled the dream of moving his family to Florence.

In the shadow of Michelangelo’s David and Giambologna’s Abduction of a Sabine Woman, Preston peels back Florence’s touristy sheen to reveal an underbelly every bit as violent as the statues lining its historic streets. He lays bare the corruption and incompetence, pride and panic, beauty and banality that make modern Florence a treasure and a trash heap.

Florence’s brilliant past doesn’t immunize it from modern decay. By the time the police drive Douglas Preston from Italy and arrest Mario Spezi, you are shocked but hardly surprised. Bad identifications, false confessions, tainted crime scenes, planted evidence, fear, ego, ineptitude. It’s all in Douglas Preston’s book.

But it isn’t confined to Preston’s book. Around the world, in locales sublime and humdrum, innocent people are in prison. Right now. Convicted based on mistaken identifications or coerced confessions, faulty forensics or bad investigations. As Saul Kassin explains in Duped: Why Innocent People Confess—and Why We Believe Their Confessions, these incarcerated innocents aren’t bad people who were leading bad lives and barreling toward trouble. They are regular people. Just like us. It’s the stuff of nightmares and fiction, but it’s real.

One of my favorite things about mystery fiction is being transported to far-flung destinations. In my earliest reading memories, Mary Downing Hahn guided me into a crumbling graveyard in the wooded countryside of Holwell, Maryland. There, I perched, breathless, on the edge of a tombstone as I waited for Helen to come. Barbara Brooks Wallace tucked me behind the curtains in dreary Sugar Hill Hall, where I could sneak peeks at the forbidding Mrs. Meeching and the forbidden bowl of peppermints. Agatha Christie captained me up the Nile. Daphne du Maurier abandoned me on the windswept Cornish coast. And Mary Stewart sent me scrambling down scree and over cascading waterfalls in the French Pyrenees.  

Today, I revisit these old haunts like old friends, and seek out new mysteries set in exciting new places. But my literary journeys haven’t just transported me to new viewpoints. Without my realizing, they’ve transported me to new points of view as well. Subtly, step by step, my favorite mystery writers have taught me to look beyond the obvious. To spy the shortcuts my mind creates and reject them. To search for truth.

Books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, and Rationality, by Steven Pinker, teach us that our brains naturally—and without our conscious input—simplify the world. To handle life’s complexities, our brains create shortcuts. If we want something to be true, it feels true. Even if it’s not. The more we hear something, the truer it feels. And once we’ve decided something is true, our brains filter the evidence to fit that belief.

But truth is nuanced, and justice often lies somewhere in the gray. Mystery fiction won’t let us be complacent. It teaches us to look beyond the narrative that feels true to find the real truth. The obvious suspect might be the culprit, sure. But the investigation never stops there.

As Maria Konnikova explains in The Confidence Game, “When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard” and “we may absorb things under the radar, so to speak.” “We may even find ourselves, later, thinking that some idea or concept is coming from within our own brilliant, fertile minds, when really it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.”

Admittedly, Konnikova was talking about con artists—how they use narrative to trick us into doing their bidding. But influence doesn’t have to be a grift. Stories turn us into better people—better citizens—even as they transport us.

Recently, Tana French’s The Searcher sent me tramping through western Ireland, across checkerboard fields, over “sprawling hedges” and “dry-stone walls,” in air as “rich as fruitcake.” I confess, when I first saw the bucolic village of Ardnakelty, I expected more of a ramble—a buddy story sprawling across the dappled countryside. Gruff but good ex-cop and grubby but guileless little girl bond while they solve the mystery of the girl’s missing brother.

But Tana French was never going to let my feet or my mind off so easy. As the sheen of the village tarnishes, so do its inhabitants. The ex-cop isn’t as gruff but good as he thinks he is. He wasn’t above the brutality he saw during his career. He was part of it. Complicit.

And the villagers aren’t as innocent as they appear. Except for the child caught in the middle, no one is spotless. Fear, cowardice, greed, bias, anger. None of it is visible from the country roads, but it’s there, lurking behind tweed caps and curtained windows, driving secrets deeper into the dark, protecting its own.

By the time “[t]he land has left its luring autumn self behind” and its “greens and golds have thinned to watercolor,” the ex-cop has changed too. The mountains have “burrowed deep inside him.” The only way he will solve the mystery is to acknowledge the bad in himself and accept that the answer to every problem isn’t a badge. Right and wrong are rarely as simple as we want them to be. Sometimes, the solution isn’t to seek revenge but to sit down and listen.

Mystery fiction has taught me to assess the real world with a reader’s eye. Sherlock Holmes taught me never to be deceived by the “obvious fact.” Doyle, Arthur Conan, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple taught me to reserve judgment till I have enough “definite knowledge” to make “definite assertions.” Christie, Agatha, Nemesis. And to act on behalf of others. Even if it’s dangerous. After all, “we are not put into this world, Mr. Burton, to avoid danger when an innocent fellow-creature’s life is at stake.” Christie, Agatha, The Moving Finger. And Mrs. Pollifax taught me that “small rebellions” can change the world. Gilman, Dorothy, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi could have cowered in the face of pressure and threats. They could have stopped investigating. But they didn’t, and the world is better for it. Only by calling out unfairness can we hope to change society for the better.  

The best mystery fiction and true crime makes us better citizens of our communities and of the world. It sheds light on injustice and forces us to face our own ignorance. And it does it all while immersing us in the spellbinding sights and sounds and smells of distant destinations we may never get to visit in real life but can’t get enough of.

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