I’ve been living in an active crime scene for the last two weeks. So you can imagine my relief when the investigator finally cracked the case.
“The ice pop must have come from the camp freezer, and not the counselor’s lunchbox,” the hardboiled PI pronounced, brandishing a piece of construction paper with a complex series of diagrams on it, one of which was labeled “salami”. “At first I thought he could have kept it cold with an ice pack, or a cold water bottle, or even cold grapes! But putting it all together, and retracing his steps, that is obviously the only solution.”
Becoming a detective is one of the least likely lines of eventual employment for my six-year-old, second only to “trampoliner” (runner-up most desirable profession) and yet much of her free time this summer has been spent immersed in mystery literature and mystery pretend. Her commitment to her future calling is total. She carries a notepad around wherever we go, jotting down times and notes and possible clues, drawing elaborate maps, squinting her eyes and looking off into the distance as she tries to connect the dots to figure out where the missing piece of chalk went (her one-year-old brother ate it) or why she keeps waking up so early (a mystery I’d pay someone gobs of money to solve).
Her bedside table is piled high with kid detective books: Nate the Great and Cam Jansen for when she’s reading to herself, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, which we’re making through together. In them, three siblings, their cousin and a trusty dog, largely free of adult supervision, wander around on vacation catching criminals in between teatimes. I’ve found myself looking forward to our nightly escapades with Blyton’s five, not just because of the nostalgia that’s part and parcel of remembering how voraciously I devoured the series myself, years ago, but also because of something much deeper: in a day-to-day in which so many things, trite and not, remain a mystery to me – from where the socks go, to how to achieve the proper work-life balance, to if my grandchildren’s planet will more closely resemble Tatooine than Earth – it’s comforting to immerse myself in a world in which problems have solutions.
Like any escape into fiction, it is a childish comfort, willfully ignoring the nuances and messiness of the world. The bad guys always get caught, the good guys always triumph, the loot is always returned to its rightful owner. But it’s a comfort we have sought for ages, across ages, and perhaps more now than ever before.
“If I have any work to do,” WH Auden wrote in his 1948 Harper’s essay The Guilty Vicarage, his exposition on the genre, “I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have finished it.” Ever since Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe started publishing detective stories in the mid-19th century, we’ve been hooked. The contemporary forms – whether the true crime podcast, the streaming Netflix show, or the YouTube videos uploaded by a viral sensation who talks about depraved killers as she teaches viewers how to put on makeup (seriously) – consistently break download records left and right.
My friend who teaches reading to elementary school-aged children told me that the Nancy Drew series is “back in a big way”. And during the pandemic, media speculated that the precipitous rise in our collective interest in true crime was due to any number of understandable factors, from seeking a sense of control (however false) to a pure desire for escapism (particularly compelling during lockdowns). Poe called his early detective stories “tales of ratiocination” – a search for truth in a complex and muddled world. And what are all of us trying to home in on, from our first day on earth, if not for that? Perhaps now in a particularly acute way, as the country fractures, the planet burns, a new pandemic wave crests, and the socks continue to go missing in the wash?
Auden posits, after an extensive review of the elements of detective fiction, and an exploration of the detective story’s inherent “dialectic of innocence and guilt”, that “the phantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the phantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.” This may indeed be true for some readers but is not true for my first-grader, who prefers to indulge in the fantasy of gummy bears growing on the tree outside her window.
For her, the appeal is likely more simple. First, there is the fun of suspense – something that children’s author, educator and lauded critic May Arbuthnot noted way back in 1947 was “the most tempting of all bait for nonreaders”, a built-in story element which encourages children, she believed, to speed up their reading pace. That’s as good a reason as any for parents of new readers to reach for detective books in the library, and something David Adler, the author of the Cam Jansen series, hooked to immediately.
“Often children puzzle out words but have no idea what they’re reading,” he told me when I reached him by phone. “With mysteries, the hope is that children pay attention for clues.”
In fact, curiosity has been shown to lead to more minds-on brain activity, suggesting that the more curious a child is about a given story, the more they will pay attention and learn.
Then there’s a more psychological component, the one we adults tack towards when we pick up a detective book, the reason I speed-read Louise Penny with my girlfriends: the satisfaction of putting disparate pieces together, and the comfort in knowing that, indeed, pieces can come together to form a whole, that justice can prevail, that hard facts and inductive reasoning can make sense of a world that is rarely straightforward.
The other day, my daughter invited a friend over for a playdate, which ended up consisting of one, long, drawn-out sleuthing adventure. They stopped to refuel with snacks in the kitchen, where I was preparing dinner.
“We’re about to crack the case,” I overheard my daughter say, excitedly. After a pause, she added, “But, I’m a little scared!”
In our household, as in the households of so many with little children, it’s less Auden’s dialectic of innocence and guilt and more one of innocence and adulthood. And when I heard that, I could almost feel her sliding away from that clear, open, guileless plain of childhood and down to the messy valley of maturity, a place where even if you crack the case, or bring the disparate pieces together, or find yourself on the cusp of imposing some sort of order to the world – in a small, digestible way, like in a detective game of your own making, or in a more profound way, in an ever-present quest for ratiocination – you might still feel a little scared and uncertain.
But before I could comfort her, she scampered off to close another case, and face her fears.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age