Saturday, May 22, 2010

Meaning of LIfe: Detectives' Perspectives

(reflections on two novels, FACELESS KILLERS by Henning Mankell -- first in the series -- and TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT by Alexander McCall Smith.)

In FACELESS KILLERS, Henning Mankell writes of his detective Kurt Wallander that he rarely gives himself over to philosophy, repose, or introspection. "Life for him was a matter of juggling practical questions that needed resolution" (123).

Same here. My perpetual to-do list is like Wallander's -- answering mail, putting off a phone call, cleaning up the place, making a note to call a repairman -- only "find killer" isn't on it.  On Sundays, and whenever I take time to write here on this blog, I wonder if life is being frittered away doing small errands and ticking off deadlines that are met with a flurry of activity and then forgotten.  When I have a large swath of time, I miss the errands that give shape and urgency to the activity of the day. 

That may be a large part of the appeal of contemporary detective novels: murder gives point and urgency to all the busy-ness of the day.  Coffee, showers, bills, car trouble, family crises, unanswered messages and other homely details beset the detectives of Mankell, Cornwall, Grafton, Mosley, Cruz Smith, making their lives more of a piece with our own,  They share in our daily stuff, and we share vicariously in the pursuit of truth that's supposed to put our mundane life in perspective.  

With McCall Smith, it's the other way around: it's the small problems and perspectives on life that give his books their flavor, and the investigation of crime merely binds the threads of his characters' homely concerns. 

In a scene of introspection during TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT, Alexander McCall Smith's detective Precious Ramatswe sits with tea before her family wakes up.  She enjoys the moments before she has to juggle practical questions of her own: preparing breakfast, dressing her kids and husband, "a hundred things to do."  But for the moment she could be alone, "As the sun came up over the border to the east ... hovering over the horizon like a floating ball of fire" (55).  This brings to the mind of Mma Ramatswe something that a priest once told her, when she worried that the sun would someday swallow the earth. "Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know"(56).

I like the sound of that.  If convicting a murderer isn't on one's list of things to do, it takes something else to make it all worthwhile.  Religion is supposed to provide that, but a creed and assurances of forgiveness don't make sweeping the floor or buying the milk any more meaningful.  Let one see those "practical questions that need resolution" as part of the "work for love to do," then that's motivation.

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