Last year, one of my online groups read A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susannah Gregory. I was thrilled, because I love that series and wanted to see how the characters had changed in the 15 or so real years (and fictional decade) since the first installment. 14th Century Cambridge doctor Matthew Bartholomew was more naïve but essentially the same person I’d just seen in book 15, and Cynric and Brother Michael were rough sketches of their future selves.
They were the only important recurring characters I met. I thought I’d remembered the book well (I have fond memories of reading it), but fifteen years and nearly nine hundred intervening books later, I’d forgotten everything but the plague. The mystery plot was a fresh puzzle and the students and faculty I’d come to know hadn’t yet appeared at the fictional Michaelhouse College.
This is why I reread mysteries. Some people may think it’s strange, but I’ve had that habit my entire adult life. Mysteries aren’t just puzzles, or at least good ones aren’t. Genre novels have to succeed as fiction first; only then do I care “whodunit.” Revisiting a series gives me a chance to enjoy the language and to catch literary or historical references I may have missed the first time around. I see how the characters have evolved and either faded or moved to the front. And, maybe, if it’s been long enough since I last read it, I’ll get to solve the mystery again.
Older books also act as a time capsule. The world is very different than it was in the 80s and early 90s. Answering machines weren’t yet universal when I was in college, and even a geeky engineering student couldn’t access e-mail at home. Detectives had to go to a library or courthouse to find public information. Early V. I. Warshawski or Sharon McCone mysteries remind me of the world I grew up in, and when contrasted with later books show their characters’ and creators’ adaptive skills.
Sometimes, though, I just want the literary equivalent of comfort food and a broken-in pair of jeans. That’s when I reach for one of four or five Agatha Christies. Most of them aren’t classics (although I think The Pale Horse should be better known), and I know every twist and turn. Reading one of these old friends wraps me in comfort, or brings me back to a vacation (which I almost extended indefinitely when I didn’t hear my flight announcement), or just reminds me that as bad as my week has been, I can still find some pleasure on a 4x7 inch page.