A place where justice makes sense

Published 9:44 am Friday, June 1, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

There she sits in her cubicle, her chin resting on her hand with elbow on desk, gazing at nothing. There he stands, by the window in the break room, staring out at the small plot of grass and bushes on the other side of the glass. Why? Because they know summer is here, even though the solstice — the “official” beginning — is still two weeks away.

Not everyone will have noticed that it’s summertime, of course. And “summer” doesn’t always carry huge significance for lots of people. After all, most adults don’t experience a huge “release” from life’s burdens when summer arrives. Obviously, summer as a “break” is more fun when we’re kids (or teachers), looking forward to weeks of freedom from classrooms and homework.

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Even for adults burdened with responsibilities requiring our energy whatever the season, summer is still a time of year when life slows down and becomes a bit more fun. It’s a time when leisure activities in the garden, on the lake or at a campground become possible.

For many, summer’s long days and pleasant nights are a time to read more books. Evenings, as we relax with a book (or a Kindle or a Nook) on a deck, porch or patio, our bodies, still glowing from the warmth of the sun, are cooled by the breezes blowing through the garden.

Perhaps we make more time for reading in summer because we’ve unchained ourselves from noisy TVs and flickering computer screens. Or perhaps we are nostalgic — even without realizing it — for those hot, humid summer afternoons spent in the cool darkness of the library when we were 10 or 11; back then the reading list came out of our desires or imaginations, not from teachers.

Whatever the reasons why people start thinking about reading, summer is also when many readers look for new books: the latest novel on the New York Times’ list of bestsellers, a memoir discussed on NPR or a self-improvement book recommended by a coworker.

For me, however, summer reading doesn’t always mean exploring something new; sometimes it means spending more time with old friends, like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Jane Marple, DCI Roderick Alleyn and DCI Allan Grant.

Those are the main characters in stories and novels written starting in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries by Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayres, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey.

The first three are “amateur” detectives: the famous “founder” of the detective story genre, an aristocrat who solves crimes out of noblesse oblige, and an old woman who can figure out “who done it” because she is a careful observer of people. The other two are representatives of the “official” police force and both work for Scotland Yard (though Inspector Alleyn is also an aristocrat — the British do love their upper classes).

Although I do seek out new novels and memoirs (I tend to avoid self-improvement books), my summer reading is often is a time to get back into their worlds, into the London of the 1890s, hunting down criminals with Holmes, or the English countryside with Wimsey and Marple, a few decades later, or post-war England with Alleyn and Grant.

These are the stories with the locked-room murder, where a body is discovered with no possible suspects but plenty of motives. One common element is that the victims are villains, with souls black as death, though untouchable through the normal channels of the law.

I suspect one reason I like these stories from the past best of all is because so many contemporary stories are filled with despair and (if it’s a mystery) focused on bloodshed and intricate conspiracies. Contemporary stories do not always end well — or more accurately, they end ambiguously.

In my old-fashioned British mysteries, order and justice are reestablished at the end. As readers, we have closure, whether the detective brings the criminal to justice or recognizes the ultimate justice of the crime itself, and lets the “murderer” go free.

There’s enough despair, bloodshed, intricate conspiracy and ambiguity in the real contemporary world. If I’m going to read for entertainment, I’d rather leave that real world behind and escape to a place where justice makes sense and where we all know where we stand and what to believe at the end of the story.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.