Detective Story #6 — Solving and Dissolving

After I had explained the outcome of my investigation and she had thanked me and handed over her last payment, she surprised me. Rather than getting up and shaking my hand, like most people do at this point, she sat back and exhaled at some length. Then she dipped her head toward her lap for a moment before raising it again to look at me. She had the most rueful hazel eyes.

“What is the best solution you’ve ever found for a mystery?” she asked.

Clients often ask questions like this, though usually not at the end of an investigation and usually not in these words. I asked what she meant by “best” though the real question was what she meant by “solution.”

She pondered my question as she smoothed the plastic lid along the lip of her coffee cup. Then she looked at me and shifted the cup between hands that made the shape of a heart in her lap.

“I suppose I meant cleverest,” she answered, “but what I really mean is most satisfying.” She paused for a second and then tilted her eyebrows in a self-deprecatory way and said, “I find cleverness satisfying—but maybe you don’t?”

I chuckled and said, “Well, I’m as susceptible to being pleased with my own cleverness as anyone else but when it comes to my work you’re right: what pleases me most is an answer that the client finds useful even if it isn’t what she—or he—was expecting.”

That’s my preferred word: answer. Solution implies that something has been solved, that the mystery has been placed in some sort of solution that dissolves all the complications and questions until what remains is the clean, shiny truth that was at the core of the mystery all along. An answer is different; an answer does not imply exclusivity; an answer does not mean the death of the mystery. There is always another answer—and more questions. Answers are only the next level of question.

Answers are the questions that questions ask.

“I suppose you can’t share any examples,” she said. “Confidentiality . . .”
“It depends on the case . . . And with some of the cases where the client is especially happy with the results I’ll ask permission to share the details with potential clients.”
“So, you do have some favorites?”
“I’m thinking of one case in particular.”

She pressed at the plastic lid on the paper cup in her hearted hands.

“I’d love to hear about it,” she said. “I find your work fascinating.”
“I’m lucky to be able to do something I love, that speaks to the core of my being.”

At that her eyes turned sad even as they continued to glow hazel in the slanting morning light.

“Awhile back a man came to me with an unusual request. He had purchased a book at a second-hand shop; a slender little volume bound in calfskin. He wanted me to locate the previous owner—not because of the book itself (a novel by a little-known writer published in the 1920s) and not because of any visible markings in the book. There were no visible markings. No marginalia, no underlined passages, no bookplate, no business card or receipt used as a bookmark, no jottings on the endpapers . . . Nothing like that. But there was one distinctive trace of the previous owner—or of one particular previous owner since such an old book had probably been owned by more than one person over the years.”

I paused to build some suspense then asked if she could guess what it was. She didn’t really think about it, simply shook her head.

“The book smelled incredible. Its pages were permeated with the most delectable aroma. It was intoxicating. Not the delicate, wafting scent of perfume but the rich, smoky luster of incense. My client was obsessed with finding the origin of the scent.”

Then I sketched out the phases of the investigation: first, the bookseller who had told my client over the phone that he had no memory of the book but who recognized the aroma when I visited his shop in person, telling me it was similar to several others he had purchased from a particular book scout months earlier. Then the book scout it took me a couple weeks to find, tracking him through several bookshops and a number of old addresses to a basement apartment where he insisted I give him gas money for his motor-scooter in exchange for the name of the agency that handled the estate sale where he bought the book as part of a lot. Finally, the estate agent who could only tell me that the lot of books purchased by the scout was not from a particular estate but had been bundled by a dealer who had since died.

“I was literally at a dead-end, so I decided to review the case to see if there was another angle of approach. I re-read the book, re-checked my notes, went back over my conversation with the client . . . So often the answer to the mystery is nestled somewhere in that original conversation.”

“Really?”

“It’s like when someone asks for your advice,” I shrugged, “Most of the time the answer is in the way they frame the question. People know what they should do but they’re reluctant or they want reassurance.”
“And was that the case here?”
“It was,” I nodded. “I realized the answer had been there the entire time. It was obvious and the client understood that once I told him.”

I waited until she asked what it was.

“It doesn’t matter.”

She frowned.

“That was the answer,” I said, “That’s what he needed to hear and that’s what I told him: it doesn’t matter.”

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