In a review of J.K. Rowling's recent book, The Casual Vacancy, I came across the following haunting quote by Flannery O'Connor, the Southern novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The book reviewer (whose name I forgot to note when I was recording the O'Connor quote in my journal) was making the point that Rowling had breathed life into a series of books about an improbable boy wizard but had fallen short with a realistic novel about a contemporary English town. I have no idea whether this was a valid criticism of The Casual Vacancy, but it got me thinking about some favorite mystery writers and about writing in general.
The first writer who came to mind was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted badly to be Sir Walter Scott, creator of Ivanhoe. Doyle chose to spend a great deal of his time not writing about Sherlock Holmes--even famously killing him off and one point--or any other detective and he certainly wrote many successful non-mystery tales. But Holmes and Watson remained the characters Doyle truly brought to life, along with their fogbound, gas-lit world.
Another example is Dorothy L. Sayers. She drew herself back from the brink of failure and poverty by creating a fantastically wealthy sleuth who never failed, Lord Peter Wimsey. She wrote a series of increasingly literary novels about Wimsey before finally breaking out of the Wimsey chrysalis--as she saw it--to write religious plays and translate Dante's Inferno. But neither of these efforts cast the long shadow of Lord Peter, as improbable a character as Harry Potter and yet just as lively.
Then there are other favorites of mine like Margery Allingham, who lent me a title for these musings, and Raymond Chandler. They established successful realms in crime fiction and never strayed far from them. Were they less adventurous than Doyle and Sayers, more certain of the value of their work, or more conscious of that invisible tether of which O'Connor hinted?
Naturally, I also thought of my own writing, of the years I spent writing in the voice of Owen Keane, my failed seminarian and mystery addict, and the years I spent trying to find other voices. Also about my faithfulness to mystery writing in general. Does that fidelity reflect a conscious choice or an unseen tether? And if it's a tether, who's holding the other end?
I find something else O'Connor said about writing more hopeful: "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His job is to find that location."
The implication, unstated, is that every successful fiction writer will find a different crossroads, due to the variables of time and space. The hope, also unstated, is that the writer will recognize that crossroads when he or she finds it, like an Allingham or a Chandler. The historical record suggests that this isn't always the case, but also that it might not matter, that a Doyle or a Sayers might be writing for the ages whether or not he or she suspects it.
Good luck finding your own crossroads. When you do, write your heart out.