It’s the “something rotten” that’s at the core of mystery. I have loved the genre since boyhood, when I first got hooked on G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown stories and, a little later I think, Sherlock Holmes. I may have inherited the fascination from my father, who was a great fan of such English originals as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey was another favorite, and Leslie Charteris’s The Saint. Great characters, all, indomitable searchers after the truth and avengers of the victims of what the Buddha identified as the “defilements” of the human mind: greed, anger, and delusion.
I cut my teeth on these great writers, and only later discovered their American successors and counterparts, including the inimitable—though often imitated—Raymond Chandler. When I first read his novels, I could have had no idea that I would have ended up in Phillip Marlowe’s (to me, then, exotic) territory. I now live just a few blocks from the hardcore detective’s fictional Hollywood home. It was inevitable, then, that I should try my own hand at the trade, and I did publish a couple of mystery novels back in the 1980s. They met with modest success.
It’s a simple formula, really. Something stinks—most frequently the corpse of some unfortunate victim. The odor catches the nose of one with the curiosity, the dogged determination, the guts, and the smarts needed to get to the bottom of it all and expose the evil-doer(s). In the case of the Larsson novels, the evil is pervasive. Its toxicity reaches from the personal lives of its characters into the major arteries of the national economy, the media, the police and security forces, and the government itself. This is no small stuff. And along the way, Larsson manages to address moral and social issues of urgent current import—sexism and the abuse of women, child trafficking and prostitution, freedom of the press, financial shenanigans, corruption and power-mongering at the highest levels.
The murder mystery, of course, is a metaphor for the great, ultimate mystery of death itself; and all the characters are merely human beings caught up in the mysterious web of mortal life. It is the protagonists who take up the challenge of sorting out good from evil, right from wrong. Their job is to shed light in darkness, to re-establish the equilibrium of a society—or a social circle—upset by the wrongful action of one its members. Thus, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has thrust upon him the unwanted task of revealing the truth about his father’s death. And thus, too, the countless “private eyes” in modern and contemporary crime fiction. They stand in for us, for the truth-seeker in each one of us who longs for a just and equitable world.
Our heroes are often of two kinds—the rational Sherlock Holmes, or the intuitive Father Brown. The Larsson books have dual protagonists who, it seems to me, represent those two sides of the brain: the dogged, pragmatic investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the brilliantly intuitive Lisbeth Salander, the “girl with the dragon tattoo,” whose jagged, offbeat personality defies all social norms. It’s their unlikely association that sets out to heal a long-standing and still festering wound that goes deep into the Swedish soul. That their story is a compelling one is evidenced by the stunning sales of books and movie tickets.
I have been writing a good deal this week about the dark side of humanity in books and movies—and there are those, I know, who choose consciously to avoid its representation, particularly in graphic, visual form. I’m wondering at what point violence—and, indeed, sex—become “gratuitous,” in the sense that they lack what the US Supreme Court defined as “redeeming social value.” I myself am squeamish. I can’t stand the sight of blood—real blood, that it—and I’m easily disgusted by the seamier aspects of our physical existence. There are scenes in movies where I’m compelled to avert my eyes. And yet… I recognize some part in myself that is fascinated by these things. Better to say, perhaps, I recognize some part of myself in them.
I am born human. I am not an angel. I deny the dark side of my nature at my own peril, because it is likely to find some way of poisoning my life if I fail to acknowledge it. In the terms the mystery genre sets out, I am both victim and perpetrator: I recognize myself in both. I harbor both innocence and guilt. The genius of the genre, I believe, and the reason bloody murder and mayhem attract us so much, between the pages of a book as much as on the movie screen, is that they are enactments of our deeper selves, cathartic representations of the human soul at its best and worst. We are hungry to see ourselves, hungry to realize who we really are beneath the veneer of our civilized social rules and agreements.
Thank goodness for what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”! Without their restraints, without the conscience they provide us with, we should be in much direr straits than we already are. We see everywhere the results when the worse angels are unleashed. Better to allow them freedom in fictional form, I believe, than out there in the real world, where their damage is inestimable.