One of the best mystery novels I read last year — and, listen, I read a lot of mystery novels — was by a guy named Dan Friedman, who put it in my hands his own damn self in New York City one evening at a MWA event. That book was Don’t Ever Get Old: great title, great novel, about a super-old Jewish World War II veteran and ex-homicide cop named Baruch “Buck” Schatz who gets caught up in a late-life crime caper, looking for Nazi gold and—oh, you know. Revenge. There’s a sequel, out this month, called Don’t Ever Look Back, which I haven’t read yet, but early reviews indicate it’s equally terrific.
I’ve had this feeling since reading the first Schatz novel that Dan and I are sort of kindred spirits, not only because we’re both obsessed with the structure of the mystery novel (and how to mess around with it) but also because we’re both secular Jews, whose work in some way is informed by that background. Someday I will force myself to think hard about how my religious background functions in my own work; in the meantime, I made Dan do it for my Reverse Blog Tour.
Take it away, Dan Friedman:
The arc of the archetypal mystery novel looks something like this: At the beginning, there is a crime, which disrupts the order of society. The business of the story is finding out why this happened, and rendering justice unto the perpetrator so that the orderly state that preceded the crime can be restored.
No matter how depraved the crimes they depict might tend to be, mysteries that follow this structure maintain and reinforce a belief in the integrity of this fundamental order. The crime being investigated is fundamentally aberrant, and it will be set right.
This plot structure, and the worldview that underpins it are intertwined with the key questions of Western religion. Mystery novels deal with many of the same problems that we ask in church or synagogue: Why do bad things happen to good people? How can justice coexist with so much suffering? And, at the same time, the conventions of the mystery novel strongly imply that God is working behind the scenes; assuring that every knotty conspiracy is matched with a dogged, patient sleuth who will unravel it, every devious killer is a little dumber than the cop or federal agent hunting for him, and within every sick or corrupt institution, there is someone with the backbone and standards to insist on doing things the right way.
The truth about crime and punishment is a lot less sunny: In New York City, where one of the largest, best funded and best trained police departments ever assembled patrols a city with a per-capita violent crime rate significantly below the national average, only two murderers out of three are caught and convicted. In smaller towns where violence is rare, resources are scarce, officers have little investigative experience and police officials are functionaries rather than detectives, homicides tend to have an even lower clearance rates.
If crime fiction reflected the truth about crime, it would be upsetting and demoralizing. Readers don’t want to see forensic tests take months to process and come back inconclusive. Readers don’t want to see serious crimes investigated by uninterested clock punchers. Readers don’t want to see bureaucratic breakdowns. Readers care who the killer is, and they want the hero to care as much as they do.
More ambitious crime writers will try to complicate the message a little bit: In my novels, my elderly detective’s triumphs over his adversaries does little to mollify his grief over the death of his son, and nothing to change his declining health. Ben’s novels, of course, place the criminal investigations in the shadow of a fast-approaching human extinction event that dwarfs the stakes of his hero’s main business. Both of us, I think are using impending, inevitable calamity to ask a question about whether anything we do matters when set in contrast with the inevitability of death
But they’re still mystery novels. Even in the shadow of a giant meteor poised to wipe out civilization, the readers will expect to know who did it, and why. The question of who did it has got to matter, and justice has got to be dispensed, even if you qualify the catharsis. Mystery novels, as we understand them, don’t work unless they take place in a universe where there is a God.
I think readers know this subconsciously, even if they’ve never thought about it in these terms. Seeing mysteries unraveled feeds the same need we try to address by searching religious texts for answers to unanswerable questions. And the revelations are always more disappointing than you hope they’re going to be, because the authors generally aren’t in possession of any definitive answers to fundamental questions. At the end of most mystery novels, you usually find out that some asshole did it, for some asshole reason. And, if we’re being honest, the resolution can never really set right the initial wrong. Authors try to hide it with gunfights and car chases and explosions, but our catharses tend to be kind of anti-cathartic.
Religion in my books serves several purposes: It wedges my character in a history and a worldview. It makes him specific, rather than general, but I could have done that by making him the fourth son in a big Italian family, or the child of patrician WASPS, or just an old redneck.
But it also allows me to more directly explore the fundamental moral questions that are inextricable from the genre’s subject matter. In DON’T EVER GET OLD, Baruch can look at Christian notions of forgiveness and redemption with an outsider’s skepticism, because he is not a Christian. But his inability to forgive others suggests there are things in his past he can’t forgive himself for.
In my second book, DON’T EVER LOOK BACK, neither Baruch, an American WW2 veteran nor his antagonist, an Auschwitz survivor, can put their trust in a deity as a result of their experiences. Each of them tries, in a sense, to become God, by taking control of his own narrative, and when the stories they are trying to live out cannot be reconciled, they have to clash.
I’m not particularly devout or observant, and I have serious reservations about the applicability of ancient texts to modern problems, but I don’t think you serve much of a purpose by avoiding reference to God in books that are concerned with questions of justice.
Thanks, Dan. You, like Buck Schatz, are a mensch. Stay tuned for more special guests, and don’t forget to pre-order World of Trouble. It comes out on July 15.