Detective Story #5 — A Mystery Is a Poem
She hated when people told her to smile. Not that I ever did—though I could understand the temptation. She smiled so broadly it forced her eyes to close halfway. She could have powered a small city with that smile but I loved her lop-sided frown too.
We came up through the Institute of Higher Detection together. She graduated top of our class (I ranked 14th out of 81). I always imagined, a bit vaguely, that we’d up end forming an agency some day, the way you imagine you’ll end up marrying an old platonic friend even though you know you never will. It’s a big city and there is room for plenty of detectives.
Instead, we meet at least once a month for lunch, ostensibly to support each other since we’re the only two women detectives in the city. For awhile there was a third, an established veteran who’d been around for years, but she refused to even return our calls. Then she retired and moved away. In truth we spend most of our meetings talking about old times or swapping war stories—not exactly the empowering strategy sessions for battling the Old Boys’ network of hard-boiled private eyes that we had envisioned, but still worthwhile.
As usual, we started by discussing current cases.
“You know, for once I actually have a case you might be able to help me with,” she said.
“I don’t know, I’m pretty stupid . . .”
“That,” she replied, pointing at me, “is exactly what this case needs: Stupid. And lots of it.”
“Alright, then, I’ll take off my Thinking Cap.”
That earned a quick burst of laughter that settled into a broad smile. I’d watched men do some pretty strange things trying to earn that smile. So, I basked in it for a few seconds and watched as it slowly collapsed into a thoughtful, lop-sided frown. Then she gyrated her wrist a few times, fast-forwarding through further banter.
“So,” she began, “a woman comes into my office. Very put together. Lithe and dressed all in black: black boots up to her calves, black jeans, a black collared shirt, a black leather purse, black sunglasses perched on her black hair which was twisted into a tight bun on the side of her head just behind the ear. Even her brown eyes looked like huge, inky pupils. No nail polish, though, which surprised me.”
“She probably thought it would have been too matchy-matchy,” I suggested.
“My thinking exactly,” she nodded, “any color but black would have been wrong and black would have been too much of a good thing.”
“So, this case is about nail polish?” I asked.
“Aren’t they all?”
This was an old joke between us. One of the older instructors at the Institute liked to say—thought he was being progressive by saying—that the difference between male detectives and female detectives is that male detectives solve cases by knowing what time the football game is on while female detectives solve cases by knowing about types of nail polish.
“So, she walks in and sits down, poised, like she’s doing some kind of neck stretching exercise, and says, ‘I am embarking on my first attempt at writing a novel or possibly a memoir. In either case it will be based on my own life experiences.’ Then she stops talking and looks at me with those big inkwell eyes and all I can think is that I want to tuck a red rose between her ear and the bun on the side of her head.”
“She’s coming to you because she’s writing a book?” I asked. “Does she think you’re a literary agent?”
She shakes her head and says, “After I prompt her a bit she goes on: ‘I’m concerned that my life is not sufficiently eventful to be of interest to anyone beyond my friends and family.'”
“Reasonable concern for a memoirist,” I observed, “but you can always spice up a novel.”
“That’s exactly what I said but she tells me that she doesn’t want to do any spicing up.”
“And you’re not an editor, anyway . . . ”
“Exactly. So, I let the question fill the room, just like they taught us at the Institute, and finally she comes out with it: ‘I’d like you to observe my life for one year and tell me if I will make a worthwhile protagonist.”
“What did you say?”
“What would you have said?”
“It’s tempting to take on a year-long assignment,” I replied, making teetering scales of my palms, “but it seems to me that any woman who comes to a detective dressed all in black with a question like that is probably worth reading about.”
* * *
We met during our second year in the program. I had seen her around campus many times but had never spoken with her. Then we ended up in the same “Advanced Mysteries” class. This was a higher level course with several prerequisites that focused on abstract principles of detection, especially the need to construct shifting narratives during the course of an investigation. At the end of the course we each submitted a paper in which we were required to create and sustain an analogy that completed the statement “A mystery is a __________.” My own paper was a solid but uninspired piece of work called “A Mystery Is An Elephant” that used the old Jainist parable of the six blind men arguing about the characteristics of an elephant based on whichever part of the animal they happened to be touching. Even for a sophomore it was sophomoric work, far too convinced of its own originality. Still, compared to papers with titles like “A Mystery Is A Maze” and “A Mystery Is An Onion” (peeling levels, blah blah blah) mine must have seemed like exceptional work. At least until my classmate presented her paper.
“A mystery is a poem,” she began. “Everyone would agree that a poem is a mystery—indeed it has been suggested that a poem is a machine the purpose of which is to generate mysteries—but I would like to suggest that a mystery is also a poem: that a mystery requires interpretation but that it simultaneously frustrates interpretation. Just as no poem can be interpreted without neglecting or ignoring some of its elements, no mystery can be solved without ignoring many—indeed, most—of the available clues. More importantly, just as a poem can never be truly understood solely through interpretation, neither can any mystery ever truly be understood solely through investigation. To understand a poem is to embrace both the parts that can be understood and the parts that can never be understood. The ideal reader works to interpret a poem even as it allows the wholeness of the poem do its own work on her. The same is true of a mystery. While the purpose of an investigation is to find a solution, the purpose of the mystery we seek to solve is something far greater than simply to be solved or even to resist solution. The purpose of the mystery—which, in truth, has no purpose—is a totality beyond expression, a totality that, for the purposes of this course, I will attempt to define in fleeting terms with the following list: to inspire, create, transcend, and resist. Just as a poem is an expression in words and ideas that itself transcends words and ideas, a mystery is an unknown that exists within the realm of what is known or, at least, knowable.”
That paper changed my life. Until that day I had considered myself a natural detective, someone for whom the essence of investigation was second-nature. I had been weaned on clues and deduction. They were as innate to me as breathing or blinking. Yet I had never considered the nature of what I was trying to solve. I had used the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant to conceal from myself the shallowness of my own thinking.
All along I had been thinking about mysteries in the most simplistic way. A mystery is a puzzle . . . This was my true understanding. Puzzles. Complete in themselves, tidily divided into clues that, when assembled, form a picture that provides an answer. It wasn’t necessary to use—or even find—each piece to see the solution but the pieces were there and the solution was waiting and that was all. That the pieces flowed into one another forming pictures that were themselves in motion had never occurred to me. That each puzzle was actually only a piece in a still larger puzzle would remain beyond my comprehension for many years.
That being a detective means knowing what parts of a mystery not to solve is something I am still trying to learn.