I say distracted. Perhaps blindsided is a better word? Bludgeoned over the head? Confined against my will? For those outside the UK, here’s what happened: schools reopened after Christmas on Monday, 4th January for many. Almost all secondary school pupils (aged 11 and over) were already anticipating returning to remote learning for two weeks, during which time a mass COVID-19 testing programme was to be rolled out to put an end to the yo-yoing in and out of school that was so common in the autumn term, with year groups repeatedly being sent home to isolate for ten days after a positive test in their “learning bubbles”.
My children’s schools actually had staff inset days, so we were still at home, anticipating a return to the school building on Tuesday for the younger ones, and to remote learning for the secondary school-aged. Then, at 8pm on Monday evening, blond bomb-scare Boris Johnson announced the closure of schools with immediate effect until at least the half-term break in mid-February as England entered another full national lockdown.
Talk about timing. You really have to hand it to the government. Supporters and decriers of school closures finally had some common ground: 8pm on the day after thousands of teachers have spent the day preparing for millions of children to return to school and parents to return to work, if not to commuting, was the most bizarre, shambolic, aggravating, and stress-inducing time to make the announcement. School Twitter feeds and email traffic exploded within fifteen minutes as head teachers tried hard to give parents some indication of what their plans would be once they had made them, and what to expect the next day. So, that’s where we are on this side of the Pond. (Yes, I KNOW it’s like two weeks later. Do you know how hard it is to write with all these kids in the house…?)
Ah, remote learning… It’s just a numbers problem. Adults and children all working from home, too few connective devices to go around, too little collective knowledge about how to work all the various platforms schools are using, and too few hours in the day. It is actually impossible to simultaneously work from home and educate one’s children to someone else’s timetable. Or several someone elses’s timetables, actually, as all my children have a slightly (or indeed drastically) different schedule. Last time schools were winging it, so many parents could embrace a working-from-home childcare strategy of benign neglect and snack deregulation punctuated by the occasional worksheet.
This lockdown, the schools have a plan. And it is intense.
I have been trying to consolidate all the live lessons and assignments for all the children into a single schedule so we don’t forget anything, but my enormous day planner is too small to write it all in. We’ve already missed a guitar lesson and two full class reading lessons, and I am still scratching my head about how that happened because surely we would have noticed if we had a moment when we weren’t all doing something, right? But all I can decipher of my notes is that I am now a tech support and TA from 8am to 4pm, cook and housekeeper from 4pm to 7pm, writer and editor from 7pm to 2am, and a gibbering ball of anxiety the rest of the time.
Much as I value my children’s education, after decades of such math–or “mere days” as I’m told some people refer to them–and the scheduling and the sleep deprivation, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. School and work and maintaining responsible adult habits during another lockdown is untenable. The only way forward is to leave it all for a life of crime.
Er, crime fiction.
(Although, N.B.–the list of crimes in the UK now include going for a walk with a friend and a cup of coffee, so I am keeping my options open, really.)
I think even the most omnivorous bibliophile usually has a favourite genre. For me it is mystery, or crime as it is known in the UK. And yet, despite the fact that I spend more time reading crime fiction than any other kind, I don’t think the Literary Helpdesk has covered it before. I suppose it’s sort of like if I wrote a fashion column, I probably wouldn’t often write about the slippers, jeans and sweatshirt look I have been rocking in lockdown. My crime-reading habit isn’t analytic or professional; it’s just what I like. And since I’ve abandoned all professional and personal responsibility, this is where we are.
Mystery. Intrigue. The righting of wrongs. Dark deeds exposed to the light. Justice brought to evil doers. These are compelling things to read about.
At the centre of a crime novel is something horrible, most typically a murder, but kidnap, theft, fraud, and extortion make fairly regular appearances. Often the stories feature a noxious melange of corruption and vice, but except in a minority of extremely dark and voyeuristic books, the crime itself is not the point. We read crime to see evil deeds unraveled and the power of their perpetrators broken. We read them to watch evil lose.
Of course, so much of literature is about this, that it’s not a unique thrill of crime. All sorts of stories about quests, journeys and sacred missions — whether fantastical, historical, military, sci-fi or dystopian — tell us that kind of tale. These are great reads, too. But some days, especially when going to the supermarket is the closest thing to a quest we’re allowed, imagining throwing a ring into a distant volcano, defeating an alien army, or even a regular human one, or defeating a technocratic New World Order just sounds exhausting. I mean, I have to decipher Year Five math, wherein old problems are solved by weird new mystical means, and then cook dinner without the half of the ingredients I forgot to buy when my brain went walkabout while trying to decipher the one-way system at the grocery store. And that’s all boring enough without romantic fantasies of saving the world reminding me of it.
The ideal lockdown read, to my mind, is one that is utterly immersive without creating any great desire to actually go somewhere else. I usually consider that fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction have failed if they don’t leave you with some desire to step across into the story world. Dystopian fiction rarely has this effect, but I don’t find it immersive either (this is purely personal taste). A crime novel is perfect for this purpose, though: it presents an intriguing problem, makes you want the resolution, and relish the process of getting it — crime fiction is great for ‘playing along at home’ — but rarely makes you wish you were actually there. Too much murder in a world too much like ours, typically. The best crime makes you care very much about what happens, inciting curiosity, compassion and a thirst for justice, without leaving you particularly envious or any more discontented than normal when folding laundry later on. Win win.
So, if you are still scrabbling about for a New Years Resolution for 2021, perhaps this is the year you can stay home, wash your hands, and embrace crime.
* * *
Don’t know where to start? Here are a few recommendations of crime series for every taste.
Dorothy L Sayers: Lord Peter Wimsey series. The pinnacle of the gentleman sleuth sub-genre, in my opinion. Set in 1930s England. Of the original Wimsey books, The Nine Tailors and Murder Must Advertise are particularly good, but my favourites are the final four featuring Harriet Vane: Strong Poison, Have His Carcass, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. These can be read almost as a separate series, i.e. without needing to have read the previous books.
Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael Mysteries. Better known as TV dramas starring Derek Jacobi, the books are a good historical read. Set in a 12th Benedictine Monastery in Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael is a herbalist and sleuth with a keen understanding of human nature.
GK Chesterton: Fr Brown Mysteries. Clever and humorous short stories. Fr Brown’s understanding of the human heart and its tendency to sin makes him an excellent solver of mysteries. Much more theologically sound than the recent TV series, which largely left behind its Catholic ethos when it stopped basing itself on GKC’s original stories.
Robert Galbraith: Cormoran Strike mysteries. Galbraith is a pseudonym of JK Rowling. Strike is a war veteran, amputee, and former military police investigator. Scratching out a living as a PI in London, assisted by aspiring gumshoe Robin Ellacott, Strike tends to stumble on some interesting mysteries in between surveilling cheating spouses. Vivid characters and interesting plots make these great reads. In fact, this series is what’s currently on our nightstand.
Mark Douglas-Home: The Sea Detective series. Cal McGill is a mystery-solving oceanographer. Fascinating stories that hinge on tracking flotsam and jetsam, and the occasional corpse, through the ocean currents around Scotland.
Harry Bingham: Fiona Griffiths series. A Welsh police investigator with a history of mental illness (she once spent several months believing she was dead), Fiona Griffiths has a unique investigative mind and a mysterious past of her own.
Foreign Language Crime (in translation):
Georges Simenon: The Maigret Mysteries. Classic sleuth mysteries set in mid-1900s Paris, Maigret is a great observer of people. The mysteries are often straightforward, but Maigret’s personal mission to decipher the human person is always delightful. There are more than 70 Maigret novels and a few dozen short stories to keep you going if you find yourself hooked on the French policeman’s investigations.
Andrea Camilleri: The Montalbano Mysteries. The incorruptible Inspector Salvo Montalbano sets his considerable intellect and human insight into solving crimes in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata where history and the local Mafia are always lurking in the background. As committed a gourmand as an investigator, Montalbano’s love of food gives Camilleri’s novels a unique, Italian flavour.
Jussi Adler-Olsen: Department Q books. First, a work of warning: These books are much darker than anything else on the list. Nordic noir is typically intense and brutal, with a significant number of stories involving sexually-motivated violence and white supremacy. The Department Q books are no different, but the protagonist, Detective Carl Morck, who has been shunted into the dead-end job of heading up the cold-case department, is an interesting and vividly-drawn character, and despite the darkness of the intricate stories, Jussi Adler Olsen makes you think, and can be unexpectedly funny.
Need More Lockdown Reads?
If crime is really not your genre, you can always peek back at the very first column from the Literary Helpdesk, which featured books about weird and wonderful families to give you some perspective on the people you’re locked down with. More recently, during the November of UK Lockdown Lite, I wrote about a Lucy Maud Montgomery short story called The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham’s, which is just about short enough to be read in between live lessons, and even takes place during a disease-related quarantine. So, whatever your taste, we on the Helpdesk have you covered, no matter how long the lock down stays locked down.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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