When we talk about mystery in the book world, we generally mean a crime novel wherein a murder is committed and a sleuth, professional or amateur, figures out who done it. There are subgenres, of course—thrillers, cozies, police procedurals, even the occasional caper where no murder occurs. Yet the word mystery has much broader meaning outside publishing: a puzzle, a secret, an enigma or something unexplainable.
These latter definitions spur the 20 essays by contemporary crime fiction writers in Private Investigations, edited by Victoria Zackheim. The contributors’ assignment was to contemplate mysteries from their own lives. Some rise to the challenge with startling revelations; others take a safer route and explore why they write what they write. All engage and entertain as they share personal aspects of their lives.
Twenty contemporary crime writers leave fiction behind with essays revealing unsolvable riddles from their own lives.
The most compelling essays are those in which writers come clean about some very dark moments in their pasts. Steph Cha recalls a man who lurked in an alley and made lewd suggestions outside her apartment window, an incident that underscores the dangers women face every day. Sulari Gentill recounts discovering an uncle she never knew, locked away in an institution in Sri Lanka. Domestic disturbances also play out in William Kent Krueger’s poignant account of his mother’s experience with mental illness and Lynn Cahoon’s true tale of deception by a man who was nothing he claimed to be. The supernatural is met with some skepticism (and also some grudging acceptance) as Kristen Lepionka is haunted by a ghost and Hallie Ephron reluctantly attends a seance.
The human body is a great mystery, of course, and illness is at the center of essays by Connie May Fowler and Caroline Leavitt. What Rhys Bowen calls “The Long Shadow of War” also hangs over essays by Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Todd, who often use the backdrop of the world wars in their work. Of the essays that trace the impetus of their authors’ work, one of the most interesting is Martin Limón’s “The Land of the Morning Calm” about his love affair with Korea and its culture, which began when he was a U.S. soldier stationed there. Cara Black’s equally encompassing passion for Paris began, she tells us, by reading the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. Like Robert Dugoni, Anne Perry writes about the “magic” of the writing process—although I, for one, not-too-secretly hoped for an account of her own murder conviction when she was a teenager, a shadowy incident she has never fully addressed.
At turns inspiring, informative and unsettling, Private Investigations will be savored by these writers’ many fans.