I often ask myself, why do I spend time writing mystery books? I suppose it is because the novel is the most perfect form of literature. Poets might disagree, but let’s face it: no one reads poetry much, except for other poets. The story of your life is too large to be confined to a poem, even if the poem is as grand as Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.
Poetry notwithstanding, the tragic tale of Evangeline in search of her lost lover would never have been told had it not been for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who has fallen out of favor among early 21st Century literati. There is no explaining why great storytellers who are held to be iconic in one era fall out of favor for not having the same life experience and mindset of generations far off into the future. Has any writer ever written a great work, or any work at all, while trying to predict the hearts and minds of future generations?
Mark Twain wrote passionately within the context of his life and times in the post-Civil War Era. Huck Finn’s adventures with runaway slave Jim might be one of the most definitive works ever written about racism and social justice. Even though Mark Twain wrote about the world he knew with humor and a candor rarely expressed, today he is in danger of being branded a racist. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is written off as racist scat that relegates the black man to be as shameful and as groveling as an Oreo. (A traditional Oreo cookie, black on the outside, white inside!)
Writers of today are often coerced into writing for a specific audience by literati. What an absurd idea it is to ask an artist to create art for an audience! Did Longfellow write Evangeline for an audience composed of only poets? Even more absurd, writers must write for an audience that has not yet been born. Writers must be soothsayers, by golly, who live and write what they see as the truth in their own era but are required to pander to the interests of a reigning few far off into the distant future. So little has been gained for the monumental heritage of great art that has been lost!
Styles change, new trends emerge; why that happens is quite a mystery. Books, like fashion, are mere objects, the silly things you and I show outwardly to define who we are. We wear what celebrities wear, albeit the knockoffs on sale online. We read what we are told by others to read. People say they want to be as strong as the world around them, but what they really want is for the world to be as weak as the most emotionally fragile and irrational human being among us. We have become prisoners of our own inability to think, lacking the courage to muster original thought of our own making and design. We’ve turned into a world full of Uncle Toms capitulating to the wrath and stranglehold of Simon Legree!
Your life is a story. My life is a story. Our collective stories could be told in a poem or a book, or on film via Hollywood and Netflix, or in the theater on Broadway, or in a grand opera or ballet. The performance mediums for storytelling used to be outré and accessible, but have now become orthodox, jaded and prohibitive— too many people have to be involved and too much money is at risk. Imagine your life unfolding in a cast of thousands, actors with meaty roles, and the extras playing people whose lives you encountered for such a fleeting instant that you can no longer remember their names.
Life unfolds noisily at the warp speed of a page-turning mystery novel. With many nuances, twists and hairpin turns, you never know what is around the next bend. Things are calm, then suddenly tragedy drops into your life like a visit from a foul-mouthed and mean stepsister. Love, suspense, grief and uneasy moments of boredom are always upended by random violence, moral dilemmas, outright terror, and an unexpected turn of events.
Every mystery novel begins with a dead body or two, maybe more, on the floor. You are compelled to find out who committed the crime, i.e., who did it. Every mystery has a hero. A hero is always a good guy but not every good guy gets to be a hero. Some good guys end up dead early in the story. The hero commits infinite acts of courage and is often saved by sheer luck. You identify with the hero in the mystery novel and follow her on her hair-raising adventures, clamoring to find out who did it.
Good guys and heroes know that they don’t know everything. Good guys and heroes are always learning, finding out what happens next, and are often surprised by what they find. They might have a hunch about who did it, but they never lock into their own preconceived notions. Make a mistake like that in a mystery novel and someone ends up dead. What a good guy doesn’t know often kills him. Heroes aren’t supposed to die and rarely do, unless it’s in a Greek tragedy, but in a mystery novel—that never happens. Heroes live forever.
Every mystery has a villain or two, or more. There are bad guys and guys who are badder still, but not every bad guy rises to the stature of being a villain. One way to distinguish the bad guy from the villain is that run-of-the-mill bad guys always think they have all of the answers because they’re idiots. A great villain is smart and unequivocally evil. The villain only pretends to know the answer to everything, so he can manipulate unsuspecting victims and lure them into his web of deceit. A mere bad guy does bad things because he might not know any better. The villain does bad things because he will do anything to get what he wants.
As you explore the mystery of your life, you encounter good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference. Sometimes there might not be much of a difference. There are people on death row right now whose crimes are remarkably lightweight when compared to people in power who have committed massive atrocities. I don’t have to name them; you know who they are.
Your life is a story. My life is a story. In our individual stories, we see the world as a mirror of our own image and likeness. The funny thing about mirrors is that the images they project are the reverse of what exists in reality. Your good side in the mirror is really your bad side and vice-versa. A mirror image is a mirage, a distortion of reality. One mirror flatters your height and weight; you appear more svelte and in possession of a long line with remarkable carriage, and in another mirror, you are quite ugly, fat and squat.
I haven’t studied the properties of mirrored-glass to know why one mirror makes you look grand and another makes you look not too good. It has nothing to do with natural lighting or artificial light—the lights that are on or off in the room. I only know that mirrors are unreliable as a force for reality, but they do make great vehicles for storytelling. In a great mystery, what is good can turn out to be bad and what is bad might reap human kindness and bonafide redemption.
Consider the following for a moment. If you can’t see the correct image or get the whole story of who you are in front of the mirror, how can you explain why people believe what is patently untrue, no matter how much evidence to the contrary proves them wrong? If people see the world in their own image and likeness, then we are in trouble. The world was never a great place to begin with, when people thought they knew who they were, but now things have grown much worse. We live in a time where we are awash in books, magazines, movies and TV commercials that tell us we do not know who we are. If we do not know who we are, then we cannot define the outer parameters of ourselves in order to understand the world around us, or even know where that world begins.
Many mantras, messages, and memes encourage you to look at yourself in the mirror and say, I am somebody. The implication is, if you say, I am somebody often enough that you will indeed believe You are somebody. What a joke! Let’s reveal the truth behind today’s mantras, messages and memes: If you have to tell yourself in the mirror that you are somebody, then you are truly nobody. Instead of being a fully-fledged, mature and thinking human being, you are nothing, a tabula rasa waiting for villains like Simon Legree to raise welts on your thin skin with a whip.
Villains want you to believe their story and will do everything to appear credible. They lie, cheat, steal, intimidate, maim and kill; they will do anything to make money. The villain has a not-so-secret desire to hurt you instead of to help you. They will do anything to empty your mind from thought. They own TV and radio stations, entire networks, satellite dishes, syndicated newspapers, sports teams, and they also publish books that were written for an audience just like you. Villains know that you need to have a clean ending, where all of the messy details are sewn-up, and the mystery is solved. They don’t want you to understand the nature of paradox—that two different truths, often contradictory truths, can coexist in the same world and in the same mind. The world is black. The world is white. And that will never mean that the world is grey. But it does not mean that the world cannot be grey.
The world is flat. The world is round. The villain wants you to believe the world is only flat, when it’s not. The world is flat when you’re driving on Interstate-80 in Wyoming, but the world is also round when you look at a globe. In truth, the world as seen from the sun is spherical, an oblate spheroid, but that does not negate the truth of the flat earth of Wyoming or the shape of the globe at your local elementary school.
Understanding paradox is not the same as having inane propaganda that masquerades as entertainment jammed down your throat. The world is flat; the world is round, is not the same as saying the world is an Oreo. (By the way, Oreos have evolved beyond the traditional cookie black on the outside, filled inside with sugary white crème, and now come in merry new flavors, including Carrot Cake, Caramel Coconut flavored crème and Peanut Butter Pie. The dribble about cookies might seem trivial, but there is truth to be told. The mantras, messages, and memes that encourage you to look at yourself in the mirror to say, I am somebody, are sprung from the same well that gave rise to Simon Legree and the hold he has over you.
Villains tell you who the real bad guys and good guys are in every story. They don’t want you to think, not for a minute. Thinking will make you anticipate all of the twists and turns in the mystery and ruin the surprise ending! You have no reason to think for yourself. You have no reason to think at all. It is too hard to think! Villains clearly state who is black and who is white, and they will change it up when it suits them. They will make black seem white and white seem black. They do this to keep you off balance and that is easy to do when you are strongly encouraged by mantras, messages, and memes to look in the mirror every morning to tell yourself: I am somebody.
Writing around the same historical time frame as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose “ – “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” which is true, but so is a statement attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, “At best the only constant is change, and that changes everything.” Multiple truths do live in the same place at the same time, but that makes the outcome of any mystery story very, very uncertain. There is no way for sure you will ever find out who did it.
The most difficult part of thinking is not coming to a complete conclusion about anything, or rather, let’s put it this way: you can never be certain that coming to a conclusion is final, that the mystery has been solved. New information can change a conclusion in less time than it takes to measure the skip of a heartbeat. Keeping your mind open to receive the smart and novel is an impossible chore when the villain appears to be stronger and more canny than the good guys. Villains desperately want you to believe their story, a story that only has one ending, their ending. They want you to be very certain of their ending because it is the only one that counts.
There was a time when you and I read literature to probe the real significance of the story, to understand the imagery, the subtle layers of texture, metaphors and hidden meanings an author purposefully or unconsciously weaved within the fabric of artful prose. There was meaning to ponder, the rhythm of words was accorded great prestige, sort of like being deemed poetry in the long form, an epic, an Evangeline. Books were so powerful back then that your understanding of the world was forever changed. A good book is like that. It will change your life. But the tyranny of the villain has changed your reading palate. The books you read make you believe that you must look in the mirror every day and say, I am somebody. Simon Legree has won the battle for your mind, and maybe for your soul.
I have decided that my real métier is writing the mystery novel, not the ordinary schlock that wraps up every detail in the end, making you feel as though you’ve consumed a box of Oreos and have become ugly, fat, squat and as empty as that box. I like writing mystery because I can sneak little things into the story that really are true, and certainly qualify as the truth, that can make you and me think. The unresolved mystery is a story worth telling. And if this is the case, then, I shall tell you a story that no one fully understands or appreciates but is quite mysterious—a perfect mystery. A perfect mystery does not have all of the answers. Neither should you, unless of course, you are the village idiot or a villain like Simon Legree.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve had an epiphany explaining why people believe what is patently untrue, no matter how much evidence to the contrary proves them wrong. It’s amazing to read accounts of people who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, even when they are confronted with cold facts, (people dying around them). No paradox here; people are either dead or they are not. I can write them off as being idiots or villains, but I have yet to come to a final conclusion. I do plan to keep writing about them. I want to understand them, and in a funny way, I want to learn from them, and I want to love them, and I want to protect them. They are part of me, and I am part of them. I want them to be a part of you too. For as long as you and I are alive, we will have to reckon with mystery for which there is no answer.
Patricia Vaccarino has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, content, books, essays and articles. She is currently writing a collection of essays NOTES FROM THE WORKING-CLASS. In addition to YONKERS Yonkers!: A story of race and redemption and The Heart of Yonkers, a third Yonkers Book is in development. She frequently writes about libraries and has written a monograph, The Death of a Library: An American Tragedy, about the circumstances that led to the razing of the Yonkers Carnegie Library in 1982. Her latest work of fiction, Cut By Cut, will be released this fall.