I read a lot of mysteries. Escapism, I’m sure. But I also enjoy a good novel, one that pulls me into a world that seems real to me, at least in the moment. I wonder if I’m drawn to both kinds of books because they elicit such different reactions from me, the reader. I like a well-written novel, and by that, I mean one that has interesting characters, a vivid setting, and a twist or two. I have very little patience with plodding plots, flat characters, too-timely coincidences and gift-wrapped happy endings.
I just finished Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, which was wonderful. It took me to 1930s New York and into intriguing social circles and complicated, fascinating relationships. And, much to my surprise, it included a brief passage that comes close to explaining why I like a good mystery, too. Towles’ narrator is talking about those by Agatha Christie.
“You can make what claims you will about the psychological nuance of Proust or the narrative scope of Tolstoy, but you can’t argue that Mrs. Christie fails to please. Her books are tremendously satisfying.
“Yes, they’re formulaic. But that’s one of the reasons they are so satisfying. With every character, every room, every murder weapon feeling at once newly familiar as rote (the role of the postimperialist uncle from India here being played by the spinster from South Wales, and the mismatched bookends standing in for the jar of fox poison on the upper shelf of the gardener’s shed), Mrs. Christie doles out her little surprises at the carefully calibrated pace of a nanny dispensing sweets to the children in her care.
“But I think there is another reason they please -- a reason that is at least as important, if not more so -- and that is that in Agatha Christie’s universe everyone eventually gets what they deserve.
“Inheritance or penury, love or loss, a blow to the head or the hangman’s noose, in the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. Poirot and Marple are not really central characters in the traditional sense. They are simply the agencies of an intricate moral equilibrium that was established by the Primary Mover at the dawn of time.”
Intellectually and spiritually, I have accepted the fact that we live in a world where justice will eventually be served, maybe not in our lifetimes and not as we expect or envision it to be. And I believe that doesn't let us off the hook -- we still need to work for justice. I know we live in Job’s world, but sometimes I long to live in Agatha’s.
If your weekends are anything like mine, they’re full of errands and e-mails, maybe with a little entertainment on the side. Rare, quiet moments are a prize, and I have been known to seek them out. So, if you have a hectic weekend ahead of you, and you’re anywhere near Northeast Portland, drop by The Grotto, a peace-filled spot just off of Sandy Boulevard. There are wooded paths for quiet walks, benches suited to sitting and thinking and a gift shop full of art, books and beautiful reminders of our better selves. I’ll be there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, signing my book, Sacred Strangers: What the Bible’s Outsiders Can Teach Christians, if you’re interested. But mostly I’ll be eager to talk to you, to hear about the strangers you’ve encountered in your life and what you’ve learned from them.
Grateful, black and blue
It’s been two days since Joe Soldati and I read at Broadway Books. I spent yesterday swinging from overwhelming gratitude to pinching myself (hence, the black and blue). My deepest thanks to all of you who turned out for this event; to Don Colburn, who had the idea and pitched it to the bookstore (and to Joe and me); to the owners and staff at Broadway Books, who put us on their schedule, moved the furniture and stayed late with all of us.
The audience, all of them serious readers with senses of humor, was wonderful. The youngest was my two-month-old granddaughter Dot, who though she looked bored, didn’t vocally object to being there. The farthest traveled was my first city editor, who lives now in Seattle and spent most of two days with me dissecting “The Post” (she, with her firsthand knowledge!); members of my writing group, who’ve read my manuscript as often as I have. One of my dearest friends brought her husband and discovered that Joe had been her English teacher back in college. Poetry fans who came to hear Joe were interested in my book, too, and vice versa.
There were colleagues from my newspaper days (Vivian posted pictures!), friends from my kids’ middle school days, people I’d interviewed years ago, neighbors and strangers. And I know there were people who were out of town; struggling with colds; had plates so loaded they couldn’t imagine adding one more event; and people like me, who may have written the wrong date on their calendars. I don’t need to see you to know you all are with me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.