When the man knocked on my window, I jumped and shrieked. It was dark and rain was pelting against my car windshield. I opened my window just a crack. "Yes?"
The man was old and bearded beneath his yellow rain slicker, with flat black eyes that seemed to absorb the darkness all around us. "Lady, you okay in there?" he asked.
I blinked at him. "I'm fine. Why?"
He shook his head. "I've been trying to get your attention. You're all done here."
"Oh. Thanks." I fumbled for my wallet and handed him my credit card. Damn. My gas tank was full. I'd been reading while the attendant pumped gas; now I had to start driving again.
The story of my life is that I often leave my life. There are long moments, even hours, where I have no idea what's going on in the world, or even in my own house, beyond the pages of the book I'm holding in my hands. Even as a child, I was so absorbed by my books that every family video shows a pair of adult hands reaching over to take away my book, and then me looking up and squinting like a startled hen.
The book I was reading at the gas station was Erin Hart's terrific debut mystery, Haunted Ground, and the reason I shrieked when the gas station attendant knocked on the window is because I was in a drafty manor house, just like the main character, American pathologist Nora Gavin. I had just found something dreadfully dead in my bed not long after digging up a girl's severed head in the bog. Just the head! No body!
This is my favorite kind of book: Any mystery set somewhere other than here, preferably written by a British author who knows how to weave history, forensics, and a love story together with a good dash of tension, just enough gore, some heart-pounding terror, and lots of eccentric characters. The other great new mystery author I've discovered recently is Elly Griffiths, whose first book, Crossing Places, I read in a single sitting, and whose second book, The Janus Stone, looks even more promising. Her main character is an eccentric archeologist and, in her first book at least, Griffiths crafts scenes of heart-stopping fright. God, I love her.
Other British mystery writers who always give me a thrill: Dorothy Sayers and her gentle but quick-witted sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey; Elizabeth George, who lives in England half-time and passes for a Brit even though she's American; and of course P.D. James, the creator of a poet who doesn't faint at the sight of blood.
What is it about mystery novels? Why do I keep reading about murder and mayhem not only in parked cars, but at the breakfast table, during my son's gymnastics practice, waiting at the airport, and late at night after the house is asleep and I'm the only one with a light burning?
I'm not a violent person. The last time I shouted was at our cat for daring to jump on the dining room table. I've never hit, kicked, stabbed, or shot anyone. I want to weep when I hear news stories of real beatings or murders. Yet I can't fit enough killings into my waking hours.
My grandfather was the same way, and he lived with us, so I guess I can blame him. Grandfather worked in the menswear department of Sears and was always decked out in suspenders and a felt fedora pinched just so over his bald head. He got mystery novels out of the library, and every night, he'd park himself in his favorite chair and slowly smoke bowls of lush cherry tobacco in his pipe as he went through them. He had two stacks of mysteries: the one on his right side was the stack he hadn't read yet, and the one on the left side were books he'd already devoured. As far as I know, he never murdered anybody, either, but we did have a really creepy basement.
Mom and I used to read grandfather's mysteries after he did, sliding them off the left tower of books beside his chair. From about the age of 14 I was reading about rapes and brutal beatings, serial killers and child abusers, people shot or knifed or run over by cars, even people set on fire or carved into little bits. Corpses turned up in fields and bogs, stone churches and manor houses, inside walls and basements, or just flung willy-nilly by the roadside. It's a wonder I ever left the house.
The natural conclusion of wallowing in all of this mayhem is that I, too, have begun writing a mystery novel. It isn't a classic mystery -- more of a thriller, really -- and it's not set in England. Instead, this book is set in a house that my husband and I once looked at, thinking we might buy it; we were so terrified once we were inside this house that we couldn't get out fast enough. There was something evil lurking there. And now that evil is in my computer, and on the pages that I'm printing out as I write this.
My novel opens with a woman being tossed off the side of a cruise ship, and there are two more murders besides. There's a voodoo priestess, and unspeakable creatures from the underworld crawling along the stone walls at the edge of the property.
As I was writing a certain chilling scene yesterday, a scene set in atmospherically dusky woods with trees that look like sculptures, my son came up behind me just as my heroine spots something -- or someone -- standing in front of her.
"Mom?" my son said, and I screamed.
I've never had more fun in my life. The only thing better than reading mysteries is writing one.