Writing Mysteries While Gaza Burns?

by | Oct 24, 2023

Peaceful Skies

This post was originally published on murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com.

The skies are peaceful here in Singapore right now, but we’re well aware that’s far from the case elsewhere in the world right now.

Singapore has committed to contributing over half a million dollars in humanitarian aid to Gaza, but that feels like so little. What else can we do? This island is about one-thirtieth the size of Israel, and if even world powers like America and the UN can’t extract a fair agreement on sharing land, water and tolerating differences what can we, on the other side of the planet do?

What can anyone do?

I suspect that’s what we’re all trying to figure out–some of us by writing books and things like this. Writing murder mysteries while people are being massacred in their homes and hospitals might be today’s version of fiddling while Rome burns. 

But let me point out that Nero was likely finger strumming (not bowing) an instrument closer to a ukulele or guitar than a fiddle. That makes no difference to the fate of Rome or of Nero–the image that’s come down to us via writers like Suetonius, Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys and Samuel Johnson. So maybe writers can do some little good?


Shibumi Cover

Trevanian’s Shibumi, no longer reads like a farcical take on the action-spy genre.

Trevanian (Rodney Whitaker, once a fierce supporter of Israel) said of Shibumi, thirty years after he wrote it: “Nicholas Hel… would have wished the current rational leaders of Palestine all good fortune in negotiating towards peace with justice”,

But writers aren’t always listened to: Robert Musil wrote of the “tortured relationship between writers and mass politics, literature and radicalized societies” as he watched the rise of Nazism:

[from : February 1933: The Winter of Literature by Uwe Wittstock, translated from the German by Daniel Bowles.]

Robert Musil

“Life goes on”—even though, each day, hundreds are killed, imprisoned, beaten up, et cetera. This is not frivolity, but is rather to be compared to the helplessness of the herd that is slowly pressed forward while those at the very front go to their deaths. The herd sniffs the air, senses what is happening, becomes uneasy, but has no stored psychological response, has absolutely no defense against this situation,”

It feels like we in the global herds are sniffing now, uneasy over Putin’s assault on Ukraine and Narendra Modi’s approach (explicitly inspired by Nazism) to handling “enemies of the people” in India.

I don’t know enough about any of this to say anything useful, but I’m trying to learn by reading Maria Stepanova’s poetry in translation, following Galina Yuzefovich’s English language podcast The Naked Pravda and Mikhail Shishkin’s articles (especially on the 2022 invasion of Ukraine) and novels.

And there’s Anuradha Roy’s novels and articles–last year she said, 

Anuradha Roy

“We are perpetually in turmoil—a state of debate, worry, anger, and confusion…. Formally there is no censorship of written work, but the atmosphere of constant anxiety within a whole community of reading and writing people, a sense of there being violence in the air we breathe, is equally undermining,”

With this overload of real life horrors, what are mystery writers to do? I think the only thing we can do is go on writing.

In the best mysteries (according to Dorothy L Sayers)  “you find a world of people having their roots in time and space and a life which extends beyond the limits of the immediate problem. Larger issues are at stake than the precise method by which the arsenic is administered”

We aren’t writing (just) puzzles or thrillers or moralising tales with happy endings. 

Yes, we may be offering escapism and comfort reading but we’re also giving readers a chance to try on possible reactions to the worst life throws at them–and hinting that they might rise to throw something back at life.

Like fables and fairy tales mystery stories tell of the possibility of justice and happy endings. 

And most important, though death is always lurking and people can be bloody horrible, mystery writers remind us that individuals matter. And that we are individual moral creatures who can make choices that can make a difference.