The holiday season is tinged with sadness for many of us. Even without a pandemic, we feel our losses more profoundly at this time of year, remembering past gatherings with beloved friends and relatives who are no longer with us. Here is where writers and readers of mysteries have an edge.
Years ago, when I was a history professor working on my first book, Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide, I volunteered on a suicide hotline. All of my research up until that point had been conducted in libraries but I was done reading about suicide, studying it from the outside. I wanted to understand self-destruction through the eyes of someone who was contemplating it. Looking for a reality check, my experiences led me instead into the realm of storytelling—foreshadowing my career as a mystery author.
Mysteries typically begin with a character in crisis. The plot unfolds through a series of well-paced revelations triggered by events: readers learn who that character is, what they care about, what they despise, and what they’re capable of by watching them in action. Everyone has secrets, fears, regrets, needs, and dreams. The more the author reveals, the more readers connect with the character and the more invested they become in the story’s outcome.
Talking someone down from the ledge depends on forging this kind of connection in a very short time. Most people who call a service advertising itself as a suicide prevention hotline don’t really want to stop living. They just want to stop the pain. Our job was to help them find ways of doing that without hurting themselves. Beyond the grief and anger, which the callers had to express in order to breathe, was the still point at the center I would listen for, the thing that told me why they hated themselves. Once I found it, we could work together toward a resolution, a way of getting them through the night at first, then through the following days.
Every call was a story with a mystery at its heart: the question of why the person at the other end of the line wanted to die. Unraveling that mystery required creativity. How are you feeling right now? What happened to make you feel that way? Can you remember a situation where you felt whole and strong? Let’s think about how you could reclaim that part of yourself. Each answer revealed another facet of the caller’s personality, inner resources they may not have realized they possessed. Working together, we wove an outline for a new story, building upon these insights.
Sometimes we never found it, that wellspring of strength. Sometimes all I heard was pain and rage, a good deal of it directed against me for not being able to help. These calls troubled me as I drove home at the end of my shift. There are times when keeping company is the most we can do for one another. I had to trust that companionship would be enough.
I think this is what drew me to noir, the acknowledgment that life can be lonely and confusing and ugly and unfair. At the very moment when Americans were celebrating the end of World War II, the triumph of democracy over fascism, the vindication of humane values in the wake of unfathomable atrocities, some authors and directors turned attention to the dysfunction at home. Veterans, no longer innocent, desperate to slip back into their prewar lives. Humphrey Bogart plays a violence-prone army veteran, Dix Steele, in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Dix was a psychopath before he joined up in the original novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, but Bogart’s unsettling performance as the damaged anti-hero who destroys his chances for happiness in Ray’s adaptation rings true.
The war changed women as well. A sheltered housewife whose husband is stationed in the pacific struggles to hold her family together in Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s suspense thriller, The Blank Wall (1947). Threatened by a blackmailer, Lucia sees for the first time the injustice of the world around her—such innocence a luxury not permitted to her Black housekeeper, Sibyl. Lucia realizes she has led a charmed life. She admires Sibyl’s quiet courage, her realism, and the two women forge a bond, but Lucia ultimately turns away from her hard-won insights. She will pretend, for the sake of her children, who want her to behave like an ordinary mother; for her husband, whose letters home extol her feminine helplessness. After his ordeal, he deserves to come home to the superficial woman he left. She will repress her guilt over the death she might have prevented. “The details of daily living would come like falling leaves to cover it. I don’t really know what’s happened to me, she thought, in wonder.”
In wonder. Holding delivers a gut punch in just two words and, judging from the book’s popularity, her honest depiction of postwar domesticity struck a chord with women readers. While that punch is missing in the film version directed by Max Ophüls, The Reckless Moment (1949), which starred Joan Bennett as Lucia and James Mason as her blackmailer, the picture did well at the box office. I imagine fans of the novel could fill in the blanks for themselves.
Each of us has ways of navigating sorrow, tapping into the wellspring of strength that creativity provides. Some escape into another era, others into a kinder, gentler world—a small village in Quebec province, perhaps—or we may take advantage of armchair travel to visit exotic destinations. “In times of crisis, geographical distance is just the thing.” I discovered that line in a letter of Noel Coward’s and gave it to an aristocratic character in my first mystery, All the Wrong Places. It remains my guiding principle for the series.
I invite you all to look for the guiding principles to help you through these difficult times. And for those who are struggling right now, I offer companionship
Lisa Lieberman is the incoming president of Sisters in Crime New England. She has published essays, translations, short stories and film criticism in Gettysburg Review, Raritan, Michigan Quarterly, Mystery Scene, Bright Wall/Dark Room, 3 Quarks Daily and elsewhere. Media experience includes interviews on National Public Radio’s “To The Best of Our Knowledge” and Australian National Radio’s “All in the Mind,” and a panel discussion on KQED’s public affairs call-in program, “Forum.” In her spare time, Lisa lectures on postwar efforts to come to terms (or not) with the trauma of the Holocaust. On the lighter side, she talks about books and movies at public libraries and leads writing workshops at literary festivals throughout New England.