Watching the detectives

When we were boys whose only jobs were falling off our dirt bikes and telepathically communicating with animals (I was the beastmaster in the crew, another kid had superhuman speed), my friends and I decided we needed a case. The Highlands Detective Agency was born, was short lived, and maintained an unshakable case clearance of zero percent.

Our one and only prospective customer was a spinster widow who lived in a darkened apartment building on our block. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we became completely convinced she had a mystery that needed to be solved immediately. It fell to me to knock on her door and offer our expert services, which I did.

She cackled. She actually cackled, saying only, “Why that’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.” She then turned away absently and retreated into the faintly musty smell of her own solitude. A tabby cat sauntered onto the porch as the screen door closed with a slow, rusted, summertime creak.

Despite the failure of the Highlands Detective Agency to ever detect anything at all, I’ve spent the intervening years casually expecting that I’d end up solving mysteries.

A few years ago, I had two interviews and one orientation seminar with a local private investigation firm. After some thought, I decided sitting in a van for days on end, pissing in 5 gallon buckets, listening to podcasts of “Fresh Air,” and spying on people who may or may not be feloniously collecting disability probably wasn’t for me.

I recently spent several hours smoking cigarettes and navigating the CIA’s employment website while telling myself, “Man, you really could be a foreign field agent.” My years of tutelage in deductive reasoning under Sherlock Holmes and Ben Matlock kicked in and led me to correctly conclude that the CIA would never, ever, ever hire me as a foreign field agent.

But finally, just the other day, after years of training, I cracked a case wide open. I was walking through the park and found a sizable pile of trash that had been dumped right there in the woods. After a brief survey of the crime scene, I squatted down on my haunches and rummaged around, casual as Columbo, until I found a phone number on a receipt. I called the number and spoke with a polite but confused Irishman. Between the two of us, we determined his son, an Eagle Scout, was the lazy littering culprit. The man was apologetic, and his son was made to do community service. It was all very anti-climactic. Surprise, surprise.

Alack and alas, most of the mysteries that come across my desk, like those of the fledgling detective agency of my youth, are nonexistent, unsolvable or both. They are divisible into the distinct categories of:

The Uselessly Esoteric: Does something weird happen when you put two mirrors in front of one another? Is it the key to time travel? Is the larger Sarah Palin actually composed of five smaller robots held together by evil?

The Totally Mundane: What do I have to do get “Raised Relief” a Readers’ Choice Award, take out an ad? How do sewing machines actually work? Is it magic?

The Existential Enigmas: What am I doing here? Is this real? What the fuck is going on?

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life reading detective stories, watching procedurals and spy flicks, etc. The allure of it is that if you just read on, if you only keep watching a while longer, he’ll get his man, just you wait. The attractiveness of a character who, against all odds, can get to the bottom of a stone-cold-whodunit with only wit, luck and will is powerful, especially when, as I’ve discussed before, real-world certainty can be so hard to come by and even harder to convince everyone else of these days.

But could it be that the popular obsession with mystery, suspense and intrigue narratives is a manifestation of our frustration that the real answers to “life’s persistent questions” can be so elusive? Do folks find in crime drama a degree of cause-and-effect accountability that’s difficult to obtain out here in the real world?

At the bottom of most detective fiction, reason and humanity triumph over madness. After all these years of what may be escapism, those still sound like pretty solid guidelines to me, sweetheart.