Nothing Sends Me Away Like a Classic `Whodunit'

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AS a child, I discovered that reading mysteries was a good way to block out the world. That's not why I read them, but it turned out to be a pleasant side effect. Lying in the lawn chair on the patio, a glass of lemonade at my side, I devoured stacks of Nancy Drews. It didn't take long for the lawn chair, the patio, and my entire 9-year-old Southern California life to fade to black. Maybe a sentence or two. Life would swirl around me, brothers playing ball, parents gardening, the sun beating down on the places where the shade wasn't. But I heard nothing, saw nothing. I was gone - off to the cool, leafy East Coast (I presumed) suburb, tootling around in my blue roadster, with a comforting $5 bill in the glove compartment for emergencies.

Often it would take five calls for dinner before they'd penetrate. Then I'd get up, resentful, unhappy at being wrenched from my womb of suspense. It's not easy to switch from being a brave 18-year-old walking through secret tunnels to being nine and having to eat your peas.

Later there was a long span of mystery-less years when I was reading textbooks of one sort or another, then a decade of plays while I was an actress, then short stories. None of them ever had the capacity to send me away like mysteries did. I'm not sure what it is about them that yanks me so completely out of my world. It might be that they demand so much of those who read them.

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A good mystery writer throws out an implicit challenge in every book - ``I dare you to keep up with me.'' Who can resist that? So there you go, wondering if the slightly too-long glance between Mr. X and Mrs. Y that Mrs. X happened to see has anything to do with the fact that Mrs. Y ends up falling overboard. You have to keep track of every glance, every object, and know what the characters are up to at all times.

P.D. James has a chart showing where each character is every 10 minutes around the time of the murder. I'm starting to think that I should too. All the years I've spent reading mysteries, I still can't figure out who did it before the writer deigns to tell me. About halfway through I give up watching for clues like a sentry and just let them flow by, like scenery past a tourist. It's nice to have a relationship with a book that works just as well if you're paying lots of attention or just cruising. If it's a good plot, you can't get lost.

That's one thing, incidentally, that mysteries have over a lot of current fiction: real full-blooded plot and characters. For awhile now, short stories have been peopled with bland characters who drifted from mate to mate, job to job. Not a whole lot happens: a small moment of illumination, maybe. Often something that looks like a small moment of illumination is really just a small moment. In many of these stories, I sensed the characters' fastidious disdain for emotion.

Mysteries, by their nature, have to have a firmer bite. There's some kind of crime or an event, people trying to figure it out, a wrapping up of all the clues. Characters don't usually have a problem with indecision. In fact, they often care so passionately about something or someone, that they go off the deep end. The detectives are often so sparked by their cases for some reason, that they solve them even if it's not their territory, if they are on vacation, or common sense tells them to stay away.

Detectives are intriguing. They're silent, observant, and their human-nature antennae is finely tuned. Philip Marlowe, Adam Dalgliesh, Sam Spade: These are reflective presences who say almost nothing but who see all.

A lot of mystery writers say their mentor in crime was Raymond Chandler, who has this to say about what kind of man a detective is: ``He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor - by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it....

Sara Paretsky's private detective, V.I. Warshawski, on the other hand, talks a blue streak (very blue, sometimes) and her quick temper gets her into dangerous situations. Still, it's good to see how women PIs solve crimes.

I think that's why I liked Nancy Drew, as simplistic as she seems today. Who else in the 1950s was a role model for girls? Who else used her head to get herself out of traps that baffled adults, and wasn't cowed by bullying men?

I think what really transports me is the sense of place mysteries have. Sherlock Holmes's comfy Baker Street digs - the well-tended fire, the tea, the violin, and Dr. Watson's comfortable presence. Agatha Christie's Orient Express, with its gleaming wood, piercing whistle, and plush seats. And Tony Hillerman's dry, red earth, pickup trucks, and Anasazi ruins. His books not only give readers the task of solving the crime, but teach a lot about the Navajo culture.

For the time it takes to read a book, you have a different life. It doesn't even have to be a pleasant environment. Shirley Jackson's ``Hill House'' had an icy cold spot, doors that wouldn't stay shut, and a spirit that rampaged through the house. I found out that when reading mysteries, I'm still 9 years old and woe betide anyone who tries to take me out of that world before I'm ready.

Once, when I was five pages from the end - and at that point reading is more like sprinting - the phone had the audacity to ring. The poor caller was treated with the same ``YES?'' he would have gotten if he'd called at 3 a.m. How can you tell someone, ``I can't talk now, I'm reading.'' Maybe you can, if the caller is also a reader who loves to get lost.

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