Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

Category: Works in Egress


No one reads the whiteness:
We read the darkness
Because it is poetry

A poem’s darkness will swallow you down
And you will live deep within it,
Glimpsing worlds from the shadows as you travel

You will collect dust
And the silt on your coat will sparkle around you like stars.
Not just you but You. The deeper you.
The you down deep that anchors all your selves.

Deep: I want to write that word in blacker ink
So that you can fathom it, so that you can hear
All the other words I hear echoing within.

I wish by writing that word (Deep)
I could could capture all that blackness
And set it down with enough force to end this poem.
But every poem fades to white.

Detective Story #12 — The Parable of the Assassin

“A long time ago,” I began, “there was a man who so thoroughly despised one of his associates that he came to view him as an enemy and desire his death. With time, these dark feelings reached such a pitch that he approached a shady colleague who gave him the names of several assassins.”

Most versions of the parable specify the number of assassins (usually three) and many name the characters, especially the assassins. I’ve never seen the value of giving too many specifics when telling parables or jokes. It is impossible to know what associations a name will have for your readers or listeners. You also run the risk of inadvertently giving a character the same name as someone in your audience. The number of assassins is usually given as three in order to set up a Goldilocks scenario where the first two assassins describe methods and fees that are too extreme for the the man’s purpose in opposing ways. The first assassin, for instance, charges less but uses a gun or, worse still, a bomb; the second assassin, meanwhile, uses an untraceable poison but charges too much. This device has always struck me as old-fashioned and at odds with the essence of the parable.

“The man spoke to the assassins, asking about their fees and methods. He was not a wealthy man but he wanted the assassination to be subtle. The man’s hatred was deep but he wanted to escape punishment and any feelings of responsibility. Ideally, the death should appear natural. At the very least it should not be sordid. At last, he settled on the least expensive of the assassins who, despite charging much less than the others, guaranteed that the death would not raise suspicion. The assassin’s only condition was that he be allowed to set his own timeline. The man, who had achieved a certain satisfaction by acting on his wish to have his associate killed, did not especially care when the assassination occurred. ‘It will happen soon enough,’ the assassin promised.”

At this point many versions include some dialogue between the man and the assassin, the man asking what the assassin’s weapon will be and the assassin answering in the language of a riddle: “My weapon is quieter than a gun, sharper than a stiletto, subtler than poison, and more certain than all of these.” Or something along those lines. Another unnecessary flourish, in my opinion, that draws attention to a mystery that, if the story is told well,  should only be hinted at.

“The man waited but his enemy lived on. Months went by but the man’s enemy seemed to go on living his life in the usual way. Finally, the man contacted the assassin and asked whether he had made any progress (asking politely, of course, for it is best to be polite to assassins). The assassin answered that fulfillment of the contract was on schedule but did not offer any other details. Years passed and the man’s enemy — so it seemed to the man — not only continued to live but seemed to be thriving. But the man’s own life had improved as well and one day he realized that the anger he felt towards his old enemy had dissipated. He contacted the assassin again and, when they met, asked him to cancel the contract: ‘I no longer bear any ill will towards the man I hired you to kill. The offensive actions that prompted me to desire his death now seem mere trifles. Some have even proven to been to my benefit. I am asking you now to cancel our contract.’ The assassin said nothing.”

Here I decided to add an exchange my father always included when he told the parable as a sort of tribute to his mentor:

“‘I see now that this was the purpose behind your delay: you used myeagerness to see this man killed to force me to pay attention to his life. By delaying his death you forced me to appreciate his life and to understand that my own anger was fleeting and petty. You have saved me from the consequences of my own anger and I thank you. I would like to reward you with a bonus.’

“The assassin nodded but his eyes showed no sign of agreement. He said, ‘You mistake me, sir. I have not sought to teach you any lessons or reveal anything to you about your motives. The contract stands and will be fulfilled.’ The man was horrified and pleaded for the contract to be annulled but the assassin only rose from his seat and left. For a long time the man waited with a feeling of dread and guilt that his former enemy would die and that would be responsible. He considered warning his former enemy or alerting the authorities but he feared that violating his contract with the assassin would only lead to his own death. Besides he knew nothing of when or how the assassination was to take place and doubted that anyone would take him seriously. Gradually, he convinced himself to doubt that the assassination action would ever occur.

“Decades passed. The man had all but forgotten that he had once hired an assassin. Only occasionally did he remember and wonder if the contract had been fulfilled — the man he had wanted killed had moved to another city years before — or if the assassin himself was still alive. Then one afternoon as the man sat in his wheelchair in the flowering garden of a nursing home an orderly brought him an envelope. In it was an obituary cut from a newspaper published in another city. The obituary stated that the man’s former enemy had died in his sleep at the age of eighty-five. Attached to the obituary with a paper clip was a yellowing copy of his contract with the assassin that had been stamped with the words ‘Fulfilled.’

The man lived another four years before dying one morning at the age of 90 following a long battle with kidney disease.”

I paused and put my hands on the desk to signal that I was done. I had added the specifics in the last sentence (borrowed from my grandfather’s own death) myself. Usually the man’s death was simply attributed to “natural causes” but I preferred to end the story with these details to add some prosaic realism.

“Thank you,” my client said, raising his head from the listening posture it had assumed: shoulders hunched, chin tucked, left ear cheated in my direction. “You tell the story well, as I knew you would.”

Detective Story #8 – Shavasana

I was tired. It had been a long day—a good day, but long. I sat at my desk and listened to the disembodied murmur of the instructor’s voice coming through the wall from the yoga studio next door. I couldn’t hear the words but I recognized the tone: a slow, loose chant to ease a roomful of pupils through the intricacies of Shavasana, their final position. Corpse pose. My lethargy deepened. Chin in palm, I gazed out the window at dimming dusklight between buildings.

Corpse pose. I stood up behind my desk, grimacing with the pleasure of stretching my legs and straightening my back. I slid the empty client’s chair into the far corner, noting, for the hundredth time, that its turquoise upholstery was wearing thin and needed to be replaced. I returned to the center of the room, slid off my clogs, and knelt down on the carpet, slowly capsizing onto my back. I lay there, arms and legs at 45-degree angles, looking up at the texture of the ceiling.

I closed my eyes, letting the sounds of burgeoning night-life recede until only the instructor’s voice remained, audible but indiscernible. I knew the words were irrelevant, merely a vessel for her hushed, lulling cadence—and even that didn’t matter. All that mattered was sinking into myself, settling into the floor below, feeling the fullness of the moment that would never end. Inhaling quiet, exhaling quietude. The muffled murmur droned on, quieter now, as I drifted loose: adrift and drifting, drifty; floating slow, unruffled and calm in a sea of thought; not asleep, not awake, dusk of mind . . .

Above me, behind me, back in the world I heard I heard three quick, staccato knocks followed by silence, then the slow creak of the door. Even with eyes closed I knew who it was. There were two steps, then a pause. I could hear his wry smile as he said:  “Hey, little sister. Asleep on the job again?”

I squinted my lips into a smile and stayed as I was.

“Hello,” I said, “was I expecting you . . .?”
“Not for me to say, really. But yes: this is an impromptu visit. Bad time?”
“Not at all . . .”
“Is this corpse pose or are you just being weird?”
“A little of both . . .” I was in a place where everything I said seemed to end in ellipses.

I heard shifting, two thuds, a rustle, a creak that I could feel through the floorboards beneath my head and shoulders, then a faint brushing against my hair as he settled on the floor, the top of his head touching mine.

We lay there for awhile, joined at the head like two stray figures cut from a paper doll chain. The voice stopped. There was a moment of silence, a whispered chorus of Namastes, then the resumption of routine as the pupils rolled up their mats and filtered into the hall, their entangled words becoming briefly distinct, then fading down the stairwell.

Then my brother and I savored the shared silence.

” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”

I said, “So, what brings you here?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Been running errands and thought I’d drop in.”

I rubbed my closed eyes and enjoyed the slow motion fireworks of bursting color it created behind my eyelids.

“I hear you’re working on a case for dad,” he said.
“I am. A suicide motive case.”
“No note?” He asked.
“There was a note. It said ‘This is easier’ and nothing else.”
“Sounds like an open-and-shut-case to me. Who can argue with that?”
“You know clients—it’s always about the details; the specifics. Easier than what?”

He sighed. Or exhaled. Or maybe grunted. It could be difficult to tell with him sometimes.

“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said, “You can even ask me another one.”

An old family joke. He let it pass.

“Do you ever wish you had bigger cases; investigations like the ones detectives get in books and movies?”

It wasn’t his usual sort of question. It was more like a question my father would ask, only without my father’s judgmental tone.

“Why do you ask?”
“I’m teaching my course on detective fiction again this semester and I was struck by how different the cases are in the novels we read:  adultery, blackmail, kidnapping, murder . . .”
“I handle adultery cases.”
“Sort of,” he said.

Even with closed eyes and wedges of color pulsing through my personal darkness I could see the expression on his face. It said: You handle adultery cases the way someone building a sandcastle handles the sea.

“I’m not judging, Nadie. Not at all.”
“I know.”
“I’m genuinely curious. Do you ever wish your cases were bigger or more dramatic or do you prefer the minutiae?”

Part of the answer was obvious—and I knew he already knew what my answer would be—but the question was still worth considering. So I considered it until he answered for me:

“I suppose the answer is written on the wall behind your desk. All your cases, no matter how small they may seem, are just clues in the biggest case of all. And I see the truth in that—I always have. Life is a crime—for lack of a better word—that is perpetually in progress. The clues are infinite and forever compounding. There is no way to truly solve the mystery you have set for yourself because it keeps growing to encompass everything that happens everywhere and all the time—including your own efforts. Your investigation is always part of the mystery, just another clue.”

I laughed and felt the hair at the tops of our heads mingle.

“You missed your calling,” I said.
“I always do. Missing callings is my calling.”
I chuckled knowingly. He’d never summed himself up quite so well before.
“Still,” I said, “I’m impressed. I’ve been trying to explain this to dad for years.”
“I struggle with the same issue as a teacher of literature,” he said. “Percy Shelley makes this argument that all of literature is one long text that is forever in progress. That text, it seems to me, is the closest thing we have to an instruction manual for life—and it’s impossible to read it all. I’ve studied and taught the subject for years and have only become more acutely aware of how little I’ve read; how much I’ve forgotten of what I have read. And every day there are new books. But you’ve set yourself the even larger task of trying to solve the mystery that all of those books are struggling to address . . .”

I laughed again.

“You make it sound a little pointless.”
“I make it sound a lot pointless. Because it is. Utterly. Still worth trying, though. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’ and all that.”

One of his favorite quotations. Browning. Or what’s a heaven for?

“I think I might have a mystery for you,” he said.
“Really?” I was so surprised I almost opened my eyes.
“It’s been with me for many years; I’ve tried to live with it, tried to figure it out but I can’t seem to make any progress. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”
“I’ll do my best . . .”
“I guess it’s really two mysteries. Possibly more.”
“Mysteries do have a tendency to multiply.”
“They do, don’t they?”

He didn’t speak for a second, so I prompted him:

“And the first mystery?”
“I don’t know what the first mystery is,” he said, “I know it’s there, unsolved, unanswered, generating clues . . . But I have no idea what it is.”

I made a mental note on an imaginary pad: ?

Then I said: “The first mystery is to figure out what your mystery is.”
“Yes,” he said. His voice had grown tight and raspy.

A clock ticked. Traffic whirred. Night fell.

“Well,” I said, still not moving, still not opening my eyes, “What are the clues?”

Detective Story #7 — In Other Words

My first thought was that she had made a mistake.

She walked into my office at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning but she was dressed for a Saturday night. Her hair was bleachy blonde, chin length and messy in that cultivated way that takes time and effort. She was the second client I’d had in the last month who was dressed all in black: black tights, black mini-skirt, black low-heel pumps; a black waistcoat cut in a fancifully military style (complete with epaulettes) that parted to reveal a black top with black sequins across the top. It was a real accomplishment matching that much black clothing, especially in a way that withstood the unforgiving light of morning. Even more impressive, her top was satin and so far as I could see, without a single wrinkle.

Many believe that the basic unit of detective work is being able to observe a person and make deductions about their character based on what they are wearing or how they behave. There is no question that this is a valuable skill. Sometimes, though, it is more useful to ignore appearances because they reveal nothing of value. Like beauty, style and fashion can be great deceivers. They are too easily seen to be truly observed.

Sometimes, the first clue we come across only makes sense later on, when we have more information. So, just as the best way to remember a word or name we have failed to call to mind during conversation is to continue talking until, through the natural channels of speech and thought, it quietly returns to us, the best practice with a clue that commands too much attention without yielding insight is to ignore it until other clues arrive to provide context.

As it turned out, however, this wasn’t a case of lacking the information to understand an important clue. Instead, I had made the equally common mistake of assigning too much importance to the first clue I happened to come across. In fact, once she explained her case, I realized it had been a mistake to attach any importance at all to her hair, clothes, and make-up.

“I want you to find the perfect word to describe this feeling I’ve been having,” she said once she had settled into the chair opposite my desk.

I sat back and thought for awhile.

“This poses an interesting challenge,” I said, “since first you’ll have to describe to me how you feel . . .”
“Totally,” she said, drawing out the middle of the word so it became a groan.
“Let’s start by trying to set some parameters for what sort of word you’re hoping I’ll find.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
“First off, do you want an English word or would something from another language work as well?”
“Well, I’d love it if you could find an English word. Even a phrase would be fine. But I’m guessing it will have to be a foreign word or phrase.”
“German is probably our best bet, then,” I said, making a note.
“Maybe,” she said slowly, tilting her head to follow her eyebrows in a leftward gesture of skepticism.
“German,” I ventured, “is a language that seems to specialize in words meant to describe highly specific feelings and mental states.’
“Oh, totally,” she said nodding so vigorously that the sequins on her dress gave a couple sparkly ripples. “I’m just skeptical because I’ve spent a ton of time looking at German words for just that reason.”
“So you’ve already been researching this for awhile?”
“At least a year.”
“Any language will do,” I said absently as I made a note.
“Well, I’d like to steer clear of Klingon,” she said.
The joke took a second to register before I laughed.
“Fair enough,” I said as I added several new sheets of paper to my clipboard and leaned back in my chair. “So: tell me about this feeling . . .”
“I don’t feel this way all the time,” she said, “but it is a very specific state of mind that I experience on a regular basis — maybe two or three days out of every week?”

I nodded, made another note.

“For the most part I am not really an upbeat sort of person. Even when I was a little girl I’d have extended periods of sadness, or just feel this sort of mild hopelessness all the time. My doctor says I’m probably dysthymic but I’m not medicated or anything. I haven’t even gone to a psychiatrist.”

She paused and I wrote some more, making my best guess at how to spell dysthymic.

“But for the last two years I’ve had these bursts of feeling that are totally different from my usual range of moods. Nothing super-weird . . . Just different and unexpected.”

“And how would you characterize this feeling?”

She paused, sighed, then gave a little closed-mouth chuckle.

“I’ve tried to describe this so many times. To friends. To family. In emails. In my diary. I keep hoping I’ll stumble across the perfect word but . . .” she paused, took a meditative breath, then went on: “For days, even weeks, at a time I will go along feeling as though I am on the verge of something new—like I’m standing at a door with my fingers twisting the doorknob until I can feel the . . . the . . .” she frowned and rolled her eyes, turning an imaginary knob with her fingers as she searched for the right word, “the . . . tumbler gives way. Is that right: tumbler?”

“I think you mean latch,” I said, “the part that retracts. Locks have tumblers.”
“Okay: like I’m at a door, and I’ve twisted the knob until the latch is completely retracted and I can feel the door hanging free in the doorway and the only thing keeping it closed is me — not by choice, only because in that final instant of turning the knob to open the door I am actually holding it closed. Do you know what I mean? Like it’s one of those loose old doors that creaks open unless it’s all the way closed with the latch snapped in place —but once you twist the knob the only reason the door stays closed is because you’re still holding the knob. Like it’s floating there on hinges held in place by your hand. Does that make sense?”

It did, so I nodded and said, “Would you describe this as a positive feeling?”
“Yes, definitely,” and her sequins rippled some more, “My feelings about what’s on the other side of the door are really positive. Anticipation doesn’t quite cover it. I have this feeling of hope, even euphoria—or maybe bliss is a better word. My feelings tend to shift.”
“A little, sometimes. But this is where the door analogy kind of breaks down. I’m totally aware that I can’t control when the door opens.”

She frowned again and scrunched up her nose. She tugged at her waistcoat.

“That’s not right either,” she said, “I know I can’t control when the moment is right to open the door . . . I guess it’s like when you’re standing in front of an elevator door and you know the elevator is there but you just have to wait a second or two longer until the doors actually open.”

She thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “I like that. If you can find a word for when someone is just waiting for the doors to an elevator that has already arrived to open, that would work for me.”

I tugged at my ear and nodded.

She said, “But that part about turning the doorknob is still important. The door is there and I can hear what’s coming on the other side, maybe even see some light coming through the cracks and gaps, but it hasn’t arrived yet, so even though I can turn the knob and . . . and feel the freedom of the door, there’s just no way to open it until the other side is ready.”

Feeling the freedom of the door. I knew that freedom—or a detective’s version of it: that feeling that I was on the edge of some vital new clue that would deepen not only my understanding of whatever small mystery I was working on, but also the larger mystery that permeates everything. Sometimes I was convinced such moments were what I loved most about being a detective. Those instants before a key piece of information arrives, when the next clue could be anything . . .

“Anyway,” she said, “I don’t want to get fixated on this door analogy. People do that, you know: get hung up on analogies because they help us think through problems that feel too abstract —or that we just don’t understand well enough. The problem is we get stuck on the particulars of the analogy; like some sort of fetish. Which is why I want a word for this feeling of mine.”
“One could argue that words are just a sort of analogy,” I said.
“Yes, I’ve thought of that,” she nodded quickly, “but words become less particular the more we use them. That’s what a cliche is, if you think about it: an analogy that works so well people start using it like a word. There are even some words that are basically just cliches, analogies we don’t even notice anymore. Even the word metaphor: it comes from the Greek word for transport. The idea is that we transport a word or phrase from one context to another but no one thinks about transport when they talk about metaphors — except maybe in Greece where the word metaphor is on the side of moving trucks.”
“So, what,” I asked, “do you hope to accomplish by finding a word for this feeling you’ve described? Do you hope that the word will help you control the feeling or diminish it in some way? Do you hope knowing the word will help make that elevator arrive a little faster?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. That all sounds really superstitious to me. I’m just trying to be practical. I want to express what I’m feeling as precisely as possible, even if it sends people to the dictionary.”
“In other words, you’d like to be able to shorten the length of conversations like this one?”

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.”


“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.”

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.”

I laughed.
“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.

Detective Story #4 — An Expected Visitor

Life is a mystery.

Later he’ll show me the suicide note. First, before he’s even closed the door behind him, he says to me: “Fiction is the great art of telling the truth. I forget who said that but it’s true.”

He’s always forgetting who he’s quoting. Or claiming to quote. I suspect he just makes up his own sayings and aphorisms and attributes them to an imaginary “someone” to lend them gravitas.

He continues: “In other words, truth is narrative. Truth is the essence we distill from the larger whole. And we detectives are writerswe weave narrative for our clients from the vastness of facts.”

“So. What can I do for you, dad?” I ask.

Who but my father walks into a room and starts talking like this?
Any number of other fathers, I suppose.

These are the clues.

A man you’ve seen thousands of times appears in your office to renew an old argument. Or pick an old fight. He does this every month or two. When you look at his bald, bearded head you think it looks like the bust of some wise orator from antiquity come to life. You think this because he is your father and because he is your father you also think many other things.

If one is intimately familiar with a recurring situation (such as those created by family dynamics) it can be easy to overlook valuable clues. Immersion in a ritual can create a culture of assumption that interferes with one’s ability to detect minor variations. It seems to be human nature to experience a period of diminished perception in the presence of repetition. When one does perceive a difference, however, it is common to overestimate its importance. It seems to be human nature to attribute unwarranted significance to any deviation from the norm. It is important to avoid both of these errors.

So, I study him carefully as he stands in the doorway of my office. Olive shirt, faded. Sweat stains ringing his armpits. Corduroy pants, beige. No jacket (corduroy, matching pants) but the pit stains explain its absence: hot day. Glasses, bifocals (horn-rimmed). Desert boots, brown suede. His preferred shoe: crepe-soled so they make hardly any noise when he walks. Hair at its usual range of length, thinning. Beard also usual length, graying. No jewelry, as ever. The usual jingling in his pockets: keys, change, lighter. The shape of his overstuffed leather wallet is visible through the front of his pants, accentuated by a rectangle of faded fabric outlining the bulge of the wallet itself. From the pocket of his shirt protrudes the top of a small vinyl notebook and the small stylus that slides into its narrow spine.

None of this has changed in twenty years. The shirts and notebooks and pens and wallets and shoes are all only incidentally different, replacements for nearly identical predecessors. The difference between each iteration reveals nothing other than the usual wear and tear that occurs in an entropic universe.

He takes his place in the seat across from me then looks over the rims of his glasses and nods at the sign hanging on the wall behind me.

“Life is a mystery and these are the clues?” He says, squinting, pretending to read the words he already knows, that he has seen dozens of times. “Nadie, are you still holding to that old line after all these years?”

I don’t answer. I remain still, a bland expression on my face. It’s no use. He is pushing my buttons so something has to happen.

This is what happens: I lean towards the coffee mug on my desk. On the side of the white mug is the image of a heart (pink, fading) between two words that have long since disappeared. The mug is full of pens. I pull out a retractable ballpoint that I can click. My father hates clicking.


“Have I ever told you why I became a detective,” he says. It’s not a question. He tells me every time we talk.


“Because I couldn’t become a writer. I have no talent for staring down a blank page until it fills with narrativeno ability to bring patterns out from nothing. What I can do, however, is peer into a jumble of patterns and subtract what is not essential.”

Click, click.

“People need detectives,” he continues, “because everything in life is connected.”
“You make life sound like a conspiracy.”
“Life is a conspiracy,” he says.
I frown.
“You disagree?”
“I don’t understand what that means.”
“Do you know the etymology of the word conspiracy?”
“No,” I say, “but I’m not really a fan of etymological arguments.”
“It means ‘to share the same breath’what better definition of life?”
“Very clever,” I say, knowing he hates the that phrase, the conversational equivalent of a click.


Life . . . is . . . a mysssstery,” he says looking up over his glasses, slowly tasting the words. “I suppose there is something in that. [Click, click] Life is a murder mystery and we are all the victimslike that old movie with Edmond O’Brien . . . You know the one I mean . . .”
The story of a man who is poisoned and spends his remaining days solving his own murder.
“Yes. D.O.A. We’re all solving our own murder. In that sense I think it is reasonable to say life is a mystery.”
“That’s no mystery at all,” I say. “Life is the killer. Everyone knows that.”

From his front pocket he removes his small metal lighter. He hasn’t smoked in years but he still carries the same lighter: a metal square with a cap that angles back on an embedded hinge. It makes a flicking sound followed by a ping when he flips it open with his thumb. Flick: ping. Then with a lazy twist of the wrist he snaps it shut. Snap.

Flick: ping. Snap.


My clicking pen seems weak by comparison, a solitary sound that loses potency with each repetition. So, I click a few times. He flip ping snaps a few times. We look at each other.

Click flick:ping Snap. Click click. Flip:ping Snap. ClickFlip:ping Snap. Click click.

We look at each other some more.

The moment is so familiar that it feels infinite. I could be five years old or fifteen or twenty-five or fifty. Abstraction. All of this has happened, has been happening, and will go on happening for so many years that it is like it is not happening at all.

Clicking, flicking, pinging, snapping.

Nothing happens. I am there but I imagine the scene, subtracting as much as possible. What remains is the two of us facing each other in a roomful of blackness, floating through a starless night. Or maybe there are stars: circling around us, drifting slowly, dying in the distance. The patterns and rhythms are so established that I hardly need to be present for them. None of it can happen without me but I feel like the choices are pre-ordained; not made but simply realized. Enacted. I am adrift in familiarity.

“Well, it’s always nice to see you dad. Now that we’ve each peed on one another’s leg is there anything I can do for you?”

He returns the lighter to his bulky pocket. I ease my thumb off the plunger of the pen. Truce. Down to business.

“I’d like to bring you in on an investigation,” he says.

This is new. Or, rather, old. I haven’t worked with my father since I helped with phones and filing on evenings and weekends when I was a teenager.

“I’m surprised,” I say, twisting deeper into the chair. “Is it a big case?

My father has been known to hire operatives on some of his larger cases from time to time.

“Not in the way you mean,” he says, “but the client certainly thinks so.”
“Don’t they always?”
“That they do,” he says and slings his right leg over his left at the knees. “It’s a suicide investigation.”

That can only mean one thing. Motive.

My father handles a lot of suicide investigations. Homicide detectives are only interested in homicides. Once they know that what appears to be a suicide actually is a suicide—not a homicide made to look like a suicide—their interest ends. A homicide investigation requires suspects or it dies. A suicide investigation has no suspects and is about motive.

“Is there a note?” I ask.

I expect him to say no. A suicide note is a signed confession. The presence of a note usually means the absence of an investigation.

“There’s a note,” he says and hands me a 3×5 index card. I rotate it in my hands and read over the sentence handwritten in small, tidy blue script on the unlined side of the card.

This is easier. — Donald.

Detective Story #3 — Love Case

“I want you to investigate my love life,” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s nowhere.”
“What do you mean? Be specific.”
He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything, so I went on.
“Here’s why I’m asking: a couple years ago I had a client come in with basically the same request. ‘Investigate my love life; it sucks.’ So, I spent a week doing intensive surveillance of his life, watching his interactions. Turns out the guy is afraid to talk to women. No big mystery there. I’m not so hard up for billable time that I need to follow you around for a week watching you sit in restaurants silently pining for waitresses.”

I thought he might be offended but, from his slight pout, I could see he was disappointed to learn he was not the first person to come to me with this kind of request. When you’re a private detective who routinely focuses on the mundane and quotidian (my active cases at the moment included helping one client find her keys) it’s to be expected that clients struggling with matters of with heart will come through the door.

“Do you get a lot of cases like this?” He asked.
I forget sometimes that, while most women who come in to see me feel better knowing their situation isn’t unusual, many male clients need to feel their case is one-of-a-kind. I suppose it makes them feel better about asking for help.

“Do I get a lot of requests to investigate a client’s love life?”
He nodded.
“You could say I investigate little else.”

He became openly disappointed, deflated. I had to admit I was enjoying myself. A little too much. I decided to give him a break.

“Infidelity—real or imagined—is the bread and butter of most private detective agencies.”

Love cases have more dark corners than any other kind of investigation and adultery is one of the darkest of these but everyone thinks of adultery as tawdry and unoriginal. I would have bet $23.80 that he wasn’t an adultery case: no ring and none of the rumpled clothes and bloodshot eyes that are tell-tale signs of a jealous lover. And I was right. He lightened visibly, his body raised back up like time-lapse footage of a wilting plant played in reverse.

Life is a mystery and these are the clues: now that he felt unique again he leaned back in his chair and spent the next few minutes being a pompous ass.

His speech fell into a four-part structure that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been asked for a favor by someone who tries to mask their embarrassment by making their request sound more important than it is.

Part One – Invocation of the muse. A sort of throat clearing as he pretended to give me a sketch of himself and his situation while working up the courage to ask me to do whatever it was he wanted me to do.
Part Two – Background. A clumsy but more detailed repetition of Part One that basically amounted to an (implied) admission that he’d been in a couple long-term relationships over the years but was now single again. And lonely.
Part Three – Substance of the Request. Before stating it clearly (due to some gentle guidance from me) he stated it vaguely and at length with still more repetitions, several prefatory justifications and qualifications, and even an apology or two.
Part Four – Conclusion. A messy and entirely unnecessary re-statement of everything mentioned above with one or two new details that were given undeserved significance and urgency, all in an attempt to delay hearing whatever my answer was going to be.

It all boiled down to this sentence—or would have if he had actually expressed himself this clearly: “I’ve been dating a lot lately (mostly meeting women online) and I’m struggling with the casualness of it all, so I’d like you to investigate these women and let me know if any of them are interested in something long term.”

“In general? Or with you in particular?”
“With me in particular.”
I nodded and made a note.
“Is that something you can handle?” He said.
I smiled, then said, “I think so. How many women are we talking about”
The number was a little surprising. I had expected him to say two. He seemed like a binary kind of guy. Then again, the mind is most comfortable with threes, so I suppose it made sense that he would ask for help when he hit four. Either way, I wondered what sort of man could be dating four women and say his love life was nowhere.

“Okay,” I said, “I want to begin by observing you on a date with each woman. I’ll be honest with you: while this gives me a chance to see if there is any obvious chemistry, my main reason is to ensure that these are women you actually know and are already dating.”

He nodded a bit too vaguely for my taste.

“I want to be clear,” I said slowly, pausing for emphasis. “I will not investigate any women I do not see you meet with for a date—public setting, actual conversing, at least an hour. These need to be women who know you and trust you enough to meet you on their own time.”

“I understand,” he said, looking chastened and affronted. That was a good sign. The innocent always look chastened in the face of accusations (even implied ones) because they tend to search themselves for guilt and rarely hold themselves blameless. Then they look affronted because they resent not only the false accusation but also having been forced to search themselves in this way.

Still, expressions are difficult to read.

“Maybe you do understand,” I said, hoping to send his conscience on another expedition, “but I want to be sure this gets through. In the past clients have hired me to ‘investigate their love life’ when all they really want to do is outsource their stalker tendencies. Not that I’m talking about out and out sociopaths—just shy losers who wanted me to see if any of their crushes were reciprocated by invading the privacy of the women they were interested in. It usually takes about three or four hours to figure out what’s going on and I resent the waste of my time.”

“I understand,” he said again, this time in an assuring tone that felt genuine even as it carried undertones of impatience. His conscience had already cleared him and he was ready to move on.

“Again, just to be clear: most of the information I gather I will keep to myself. In other words, I will share my conclusions with you but not much else. Don’t expect me to provide you with a dossier about each of these women. I’ll do some digging and observing but all you’ll get from me is conclusions: yes; no; maybe.”
“That’s all I care about.”
“Finally,” I said, “I should tell you that there is a much easier and cheaper way to go about this.”
“Women talk,” I said.
“To each other, you mean?”
“Well, yes,” I acknowledged, “but they also talk to you. Especially if you ask them things. You’re already dating these four women—asking them directly what they’re looking for is much easier and probably more accurate than paying me. At least one or two of them is likely to appreciate it.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said without much conviction.
“But. . .” I prompted him.
He smiled, “But I’d like to know who is interested in a long-term relationship before I start having those conversations.”

Detective Story #1 — These Are The Clues

Life is a mystery and these are the clues: a woman (thirty-five) seated at a desk opposite an empty chair; a ticking clock.

Then the clues change. Or stay the same but rearrange themselves around a new clue: approaching footsteps on creaking stairs. Male by the sound. Heavy, dense steps with little of the tapping that comes from most women’s footwear, though I’m guessing. The interval between steps could probably be used to estimate height.

More steps, more clues. Will they stop at the door? Will they continue to the left, as most do, to the modeling agency? Or to the right to the empty office where the accountant used to be. The steps stop. A silhouette (male, almost certain now) through the frosted, dimpled glass. Then a knock.

Life is a mystery, these are the clues: a man in his forties wearing khaki pants, a black polo shirt (tucked in) and black sneakers walks into a detective agency with a book in his hand.

It’s a Saturday so he hasn’t come from work and this is, presumably, the way he thinks you should dress when you see a private detective on our your own time.

We exchange hellos and I gesture to the empty seat in front of me. He has short, dark brown hair that is graying above the ears. Blue eyes gaze out from behind little round, brown, tortoise-shell glasses. His expression is almost cartoonishly neutral: his lips flatlining across the bottom of his face.

I smile and ask how I can be of service.

He leans forward slightly and places the book on the desk between us.

“I’d like you to find the previous owner of this book,” he says and nods at the book.

I lean forward. Life is a mystery and this is a clue: a slender hardbound book without a dustjacket. I am not familiar with the title or its author: Peter Bunton Fulmerford, Out of Tomorrow’s Darkness. I open it, flip through the pages. Quality paper, the last numbered page is 153, the first page has a price written lightly in soft pencil: “15—”.

“There isn’t an ex libris stamp or anything like that,” he says and I worry that he thinks I’ve assumed he hasn’t checked for the obvious. But his voice is as neutral as his expression.

Taking care not to sound defensive, I say: “I assume that if you are serious enough to come to a detective you would have thought to inspect the book for any obvious indications of the previous owner.”

He nods and says, “No ex-libris stamp, no business card for a bookmark, no inscription, no marginalia. Unless there’s something written in invisible ink.”

I chuckle.

“So,” I asked, “may I ask why you’re interested in locating the previous owner if he or she left no noticeable markings on this book?”
“Well, there actually is a kind of marking—to use your word. Press your nose to its pages.”
I did.
“Do you smell it?”

I did. It wasn’t necessary press my nose to the pages, though I did for a few seconds. The aroma was strong but difficult to describe or comprehend. A hint of vanilla, perhaps. Or honeysuckle. Something citrusy, too. Lemon? Lime? Orange zest? The scents dovetailed into each other and drifted in and out as I tried to identify them. Compared to the eyes, the nose is an imprecise instrument.

Nevertheless, I chastised myself. Detection is the business of observation and observation is the business of all five senses. Six, some would argue. I had perceived the scent, momentarily, but I had not observed it. I had not, in truth, really noticed it. Clues are not merely pieces of the puzzle, they are puzzles in themselves. This clue contained smaller clues just as every mystery, once solved, becomes a clue in the larger mystery: Life.

Detective Story #2 — Billing Practices

“How much do you charge?” He asked.

I reached into my purse—it was hanging from the back of my wooden chair—and took out my smartphone. I tapped in my code, then tapped the small icon that looked like a old-fashioned taxi meter with a magnifying glass for a lever. I set the phone on the desk between us and rotated the screen so we could both see the ledger with two buttons, one red and one green.

“I charge by the minute. Whenever I am working on your case I tap the green button, when I stop working on your case I tap the red button.”
“That sounds expensive.”
“It’s like this,” I explained, “If I’m doing surveillance on your case—tailing a suspect, for instance—I tap the green button. If they go shopping and I follow them inside I will do my own shopping and tap the red button while I do. Then when I check out at the register, I tap the green button again. Let’s say I stake out a suspect’s apartment. I will bring a book and read. I don’t hit the green button until they do something that is potentially germane to the investigation. As much a possible I try to use the down time inherent in detective work to perform personal tasks that I would otherwise do on my own time. When I’m doing surveillance I also eat, catch up on my correspondence, take care of my nails, watch my favorite shows, read books, and so on.”
“Okay. . .”
“By the same token, if I’m eating dinner with a friend and he or she goes to the bathroom and I think about your case—not idle thoughts but productive ones—I tap the green button until my friend returns or I stop thinking about your case. Every minute of actual time I spend on your case is logged and, when possible, itemized. Other detectives charge you for sitting in the car for five hours eating salted peanuts while they watch a client’s wife watch TV for three hours. Some even charge for the peanuts. I charge only for the time and any direct expenses I would not otherwise have incurred.”
“What sort of expenses? What do you mean: ‘not otherwise have incurred’?”
“Suppose I’m following someone and they go to a movie. If it’s a movie I want to see, I tap the red button. Otherwise: green button. Or let’s say they go to a museum—if they go to a museum I’ve been intending to visit, I won’t charge for the admission fee and I won’t charge for any of the minutes I am inside until I am forced to pay attention only to the person I am surveilling. Or until circumstances change. For instance, if they go into a Special Exhibit I’m not interested in I will charge you for that entrance fee as well as for the time I spend in the special exhibit.”
“It sounds pretty subjective to me.”
I shrugged, “It is.”
“Do you typically charge less than other detectives?”
“I have no idea. My billing method isn’t a promotional gimmick and I’m not telling you about it in order to make a sale. This is just the way of charging for my services that makes the most sense to me.” I paused then added: “I can’t say for sure but I would guess that my rates are usually in line with what other detectives charge but occasionally much cheaper—some cases line up very well with my own routine.”
“It sounds fine,” he said and waved of his hand distractedly. Then he said, “I’m curious, though: what do you mean about some cases lining up with your routine?”
“I’ll give you an example: I was on a case two years ago that required I chase a suspect—he attempted to commit a crime while I was tailing him and I had no choice but to intervene. He fled and I chased him through a hilly park for nearly twenty minutes before I was able to apprehend him.”
“And you counted that as exercise.”
“Exactly. I run three days a week for twenty or thirty minutes. I tapped the green button when I finally caught up with him and made a citizen’s arrest.”