I have been a fan of mysteries since I was a kid. One of my most vivid and satisfying early childhood memories is reading “The Golf Club Murder”, by Owen Fox Jerome and published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1929. The dust cover has long disappeared, but the olive green hardback with its black, all caps, centered title in bold demands it be read. It was on the shelf in my great-grandfather’s den. He had read it when it first came out. Successive generations in my family read it, and I happily have continued the tradition.
In truth I have read it over and over. I find it soothing. I drop into the story, set in the 1920’s with a perky heroine, who, while obviously living a privileged life, still has time for her friends and treats the help with kindness. A role I find is tailored to my own inner sleuth. I know the characters, have (with the help of the author) decorated the rooms, explored the locales, and ridden in the runabouts. I return to its familiar language and pacing with joy and, amazing to me, absolutely no memory of what the solution to the mystery is!
This book, and others like it, are the Valium I take to manage the stark reality of the Locked Room Mystery we are currently living.
One of the wonderful things about a locked room mystery is the implicit agreement I have with the author when I open the book. That agreement is this: by the end of the book there will be a solution to the mystery and the heroine will survive. There are several subsections to this agreement. First, there will be a murder. Secondly, there will be confusion and misdirection, and lots and lots of red herrings (these are clues, for the uninitiated). Third, there will be several characters who, on the surface, appear to be stalwart (an old-timey word I am particularly fond of), and there will be several characters who have moral flaws that may or may not be redeemable. Fourth, the solution will NOT be the first one offered. Fifth, the climax of the story will come very near the end. And, sixth, an explanation of what actually happened will be provided so you can justify the time and money you invested in reading the book.
Personally, I am going to adopt this structure as my way of making sense of what is happening in our world right now.
While I still hold out for me to be the perky heroine who will save the world, I think I might nominate several others to fill that role. There are local heroines (e.g., Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stacey Abrams, Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Patrice Harris) as well as international ones (Jacinda Ardern, PM, New Zealand, Angela Merkel, Chancellor, Germany, Sanna Marin, PM, Finland). There are also plenty of evil suspects (I am not even going to go there . . .)
The plot is pretty straightforward. A virus is detected in a previously unknown quarter of the world. Ignored by most in the beginning, it spreads in spite of noble but insufficient efforts to stop it by an unknown doctor. Once detected, it quickly over-runs the paltry systems in place, which, we find out, are just false fronts for greedy corporate gazillionaires.
Recognizing that help is not going to come from the outside, a band of perky upstarts gathers together at the lake (or the cabin or the seaside retreat or whatever setting you prefer) to discuss how they can save the world. Each has a special power that alone cannot fix the problem. Only through cooperation and hard work will the combined efforts turn the tide. Hard decisions will have to be made, since there will be a high price paid and much suffering will be experienced before things turn out the way they should.
The climax occurs when the forces of good confront the greedy gazillionaires and The Truth is revealed. A vaccine (or other miracle) is discovered by one of the perky band and turns out to be a substance found in unlimited supply throughout the world and easily distributed by the local post office reaching everyone on the planet with its life-saving, protective properties. Once taken, people are immediately relieved of their symptoms and join in celebrations (specific to their culture) that acknowledge just how close we have come to destruction and now vow to live together in peace and harmony forever.
The bad guys are brought before the World Court and are punished by kindness and forgiveness and just a soupçon of shaming. They repent, but are never again allowed to have Amex Centurion cards or Twitter accounts and must provide daily public service to the poor until they die.
Each member of the perky band experiences a sense of satisfaction in a job well done, and accepts humbly and modestly the appreciation and financial support of a grateful world. Each finds true love in preferred, cis-gender, LGBTQ identified relationships.
To date, the COVID crisis has been handled almost as if it was written by Mr. Jerome. There have been plenty of murders so far – and those who can be held accountable for those deaths include many elected officials who have chosen to ignore medical advice and have, with premeditation, embarked on a path of withholding supplies and providing false information to cover their tracks.
Lots of misdirection and red herrings: “Wearing a mask is a Bill of Rights issue.” “We don’t need an organized Federal response. States can figure out what they need in terms of PPP and tests.” “Testing results in bad numbers; if you don’t test, the results will turn out well.” “The economy is just fine.” “The crisis will be over by May.” “Jobs will come back.”
The crusty detective role might be played by Dr. Fauci or one of the Cuomo brothers, or maybe even Gavin Newsom. A regular Hollywood cattle call will be needed for the bad guys, since there are so many small roles that need filling.
The first solution has already proved to be problematic – “Just open for business and get the economy going again!” Of course, it is being re-tried, but in school-age format now – “Just open the schools! It will get people back to work!” Hmmmm. I am a bit suspicious about this . . . It might be a red herring!
While I am hopeful that a band of perky upstarts can find a magical solution to the problem, I suspect that the fall-out from this pandemic will take years, perhaps even decades from which to recover. The incredible loss of life, the abdication of leadership by our elected officials and the resulting loss of trust in government institutions may never be regained in my lifetime. Finding ways to create a new economy that is equitable and provides equity for all will take imagination and a willingness to let go of our old ways of thinking.
The ending to this locked room mystery has yet to be written. I am afraid we will have to wait for the climax and the explanation of what happened. We are just not there yet.