Detecting Humanists: New Mysteries by Anne Perry and Walter Mosley

04/29/2013 08:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2013

A humanist is a person having a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity. (Thank you, For me, being a humanist also means believing in the inherent ability of each human being to think and reason, and to decide to act not just for one's own benefit but also for the benefit of the community.

In reading two mysteries, one that just came out, Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry, and one that comes out in May, Little Green by Walter Mosley, I am struck by a marvelous similarity between the two very distinct novels: the detecting heroes are humanists, fitting both the dictionary and the Sankovitch definition. Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, living in Victorian London, and Easy Rawlins, living in 1960s Los Angeles, all believe in the inherent value and potential goodness of every human being. No matter the class or gender (the Pitts) or the race (Rawlins), the integrity of each person (mind and body), is to be protected and respected. These detecting humanists don't battle evil by force but by their wits and by their goodness, and by their belief in the potential goodness of others.

I love the many, many mysteries written by Anne Perry (not only her Pitt mysteries but also her Monk and Christmas mysteries) and Walter Mosley (Easy Rawlins and also the Leonid McGill mysteries) but I always thought my love was due to the twisting plots, marvelously created settings, and richly characterized heroes, villains, and victims. Now I understand I love these novels because of the humanism of the detectives -- they have what it takes, with their belief in humankind and their brains and their bravery, to fight evil and win. Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, and Easy Rawlins: they know evil is worth fighting because people are worth protecting -- a detective who doesn't care much for the human race just cannot be as effective as one who finds kinship across boundaries of race, gender, and class.

In Midnight at the Marble Arch, the problem of rape comes viciously to light when an upper-class wife is found raped and murdered in her own home. After the truth of her death is revealed (raising the question of shame that has been attached to rape since the earliest of times), Charlotte Pitt suddenly sees its threat everywhere -- from servant girls to society daughters, no woman is safe if just one woman fears to face her accuser. And what woman will admit the damage that has been done her, when so many will find her own actions suspect? The Pitts are sure that if more people can be made to see the harms wrought by the silence around rape, the number of such crimes will decrease. But the Pitts are also resolved that even if legal punishment cannot be exacted for this terrible crime, the perpetrator must be prevented from repeating it; castrated in ambition, if not in fact. A humanist trusts in the law but works beyond it to protect human beings, when the law falls short.

Easy Rawlins also finds himself working beyond the bounds of the law when a young black man, the "Little Green" from the title of the book, goes missing. He tracks the boy to Sunset Strip, a place of free love and free drugs. Rawlins is surprised by what he finds there: white people as distrusted by the police as black men have always been. Working with these social rebels, he finds more than just the missing boy -- he finds new hope for what he always believed was true, that all men can get along, no matter the color of their skin. A humanist finds good where he can, and develops it by giving it the room to grow.

I now realize that all of my favorite mystery writers have created detecting humanists: Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma, from 8th century Ireland; C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake, living in Tudor England; Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice and Martha Grimes' Richard Jury of London, to name just a few. Do I look for humanist detectives to buttress my own belief in the inherent goodness of human beings -- that by using our hearts and our minds, we can save the world? Or is it the other way around: fictional detectives reflect the truth that evil is battled not by force and violence but by wits and goodness? We need a lot of goodness these days, and any heroes, fictional or not, that can inspire us, are welcome.