Pseudonymous author Archer Sullivan has had stories published in several literary and genre magazines, mostly under her own name, but her first fiction sale at professional rates was to EQMM. The story will appear in the Department of First Stories of our May/June 2023 issue (on sale April 18). She tells us that she’s a ninth generation Appalachian who currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is a real-life Beverly Hillbilly. Her topic here touches on something I’ve always believed in: the healing power of fiction. —Janet Hutchings
It’s interesting the way fiction heals. The way we can fall into a story when we most need it, lose ourselves in it, emerge changed. I can point to specific books throughout my life that shepherded me through tough times. Robin McKinley’s work in middle school. Sherlock Holmes in my early teens. In high school: The Princess Bride. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Slaughterhouse Five. Later: Bleak House, Watership Down, True Grit, the many works of Lois McMaster Bujold. I regard these books as old friends and have distinct memories of where I was when reading them, how I felt.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I’d had it all my life but my symptoms had always been mild enough to generally ignore. Then, one day, something new happened. Sitting at my computer, typing, pain rushed through my hands. It was like lightning and fire all at once. And it didn’t stop. I felt it when I ate, when I watched TV, when I ran errands, and when I tried to sleep. But the worst was typing.
I had just begun a fledgling writing career, but I couldn’t type for more than ten minutes without agonizing pain. To make matters worse, I was suddenly alienated from my friends and family. I’m a socially awkward, neurodivergent, introverted person and I do almost all of my communication with the outside world via the keyboard. For me, thinking out loud exists on a sliding scale somewhere between exhausting and impossible so my entire life had (at least since I was twelve and had access to the internet and a computer) been conducted through typing. Now, suddenly, I felt completely closed off. Any fine movement of my fingers seared with burning, throbbing pain. Determined to find a fix, I was in and out of doctors’ offices, testing centers, and physical therapy clinics every single week.
I want to say up front—because there is a time and place for suspense and a blog post isn’t necessarily it . . . even if it’s the EQMM Blog—that this pain was eventually resolved. But, it took a while.
And, in the meantime, I found solace in books. Mystery had always been my favorite genre, but I’d never given it my full focus.
Now, suddenly, I had all the time and motivation to catch up. I re-read Sherlock Holmes, then discovered Alan Bradley’s fabulous Flavia series. I still remember—in the worst of that pain—lying on the sofa and laughing out loud at Flavia’s antics and rare, bold voice. I read several of Robert Parker’s Spenser novels and fell in beside Hawk and Susan in my amused admiration of Spenser’s unalterable moral compass. I decided—around the time I lost the ability to open even a peanut butter jar—that I could be soothed by Poirot’s fussy and meticulous crime solving and read ten or twelve Christies in a row followed by a few dashes of Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and PD James. Then I came back across the pond and stuck with the PI genre from Hammett to Chandler to McDonald to Hansen to Parker (once again) and then to Grafton.
I dipped into noir but always found it unsatisfying. Perhaps this should have been obvious. Noir is intentionally bleak, after all. So, while I appreciate the beautiful writing in many noir novels, I cannot actually enjoy them. Though I may admire the way the author works, the stark language, the devastating social landscape, noir isn’t an escape for me. And an escape is what I needed.
This is the thing about mystery—especially traditional mystery but usually in PI as well—you begin with a problem (a dead body, a missing person, a stolen item) and you end with a solution. Sounds simple. But in a world where we are all jaded, harried, and/or a little bit broken, this concept has power.
There are bad guys and there are good guys and, by the end, the bad guys are punished thanks to the efforts of the good guys. PI often goes into grayer territory than traditional mystery, but while a PI may skirt the law to creatively solve problems, they almost always stick to their own moral code which almost always ends in a positive solution for Team Good (or at least Team Not As Bad.) And that simple thrust of plot from problem to solution, from bad to good, from wound to healing, is good medicine.
Traditional mystery takes it a step further, presenting the reader with a problem at the beginning (usually a dead body) and challenging them to be part of the solution (finding the killer.) So when we read WhoDunIts we aren’t just watching the events unfold, we’re part of the process. Every step of the way. It’s empowering. And it’s a reminder that life isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) noir. Yes, we are a complicated species with myriad serious problems, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed. Sometimes heroes emerge. Sometimes life changes for the better. Sometimes we manage to side-step what seems to be our fate.
Pain is a much studied phenomenon these days. In reality, it’s nothing more than the brain’s reaction to specific stimuli via nerves that may or may not be relied upon to accurately convey information. And yet it feels so solid. Sometimes, it can feel as if it will never end. As if it flows from an endless source. As if you, yourself, are made of it. And, in those times, it is often necessary to know that at least something is solved. Something is fixed. Someone is saved. There is good in the world and, at the end of the day, it wins.
As I went from doctor to doctor and test to test, Flavia’s conversations with Dogger pulled me through. As I lay awake at night with my hands throbbing to the point of frustrated, exhausted tears, Cordelia Gray’s determination held me together. As we finally came to understand the root cause of my pain (not my hinky finger joints but compressed nerves in my cervical spine) I celebrated with Poirot. And as I began the long journey back from muscular atrophy and nerve damage, I hung my hopes on the hook beside Spenser’s Red Sox cap.
It was more than a year before I came back to the keyboard. I remember the moment. The cold sweat slicking my skin, the pounding of my heart, the tears in my eyes. I was terrified that I would try to write and it would start all over. But I put my fingers to the keys and I typed. And I waited. I typed. And I waited. And no pain came.
I sent up a silent prayer of thanks to all the authors who had sat at their keyboards and typewriters and notebooks and sheafs of papers before me, who had put their hearts and heads and precious time into giving me and so many others hours of not only entertainment and diversion, but something deeper and more meaningful.
When I finished that first new story, I realized I was a different writer—a different person—than I’d been before. I still had the same chronic illness and would always have odd problems and distressing symptoms as a result. And, the pain could always come back if I didn’t stay on top of my physical therapy, strength training, postural adjustments, etc. But I could write.
And what I wanted to write was mystery.