Anna Maria Island, on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
My mother-in-law enjoys quilting, prosecco, chocolates, family photographs, geraniums, skim milk, and the new children’s wing at the public library. She is a kind woman, and—as long as you don’t curse—an eminently forgiving person, with a bent toward digital ineptitude that is at once exasperating and endearing.
“Okay, I clicked on it,” she says to me over the phone. “Now it disappeared.”
“It shouldn’t disappear,” I say. “Nothing just disappears.”
“Well, it disappeared.”
When the whole family goes to the beach, she packs a sun hat and snacks and tells us about her childhood catching crabs at the shore with only a piece of chicken and a string. At some point, as the conversation trails off, she reaches into her beach bag (purple, she sewed it herself) and gets out a book, and for the next hour she doesn’t say a word. Such an innately garrulous woman, what is it that has so engrossed her? Naturally, she is reading about a murder.
My mother-in-law is quite an aficionado of murders. She’s traveled the winding canals of Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti, in the novels of Donna Leon, as he investigated the drowning of an American serviceman; she’s followed along behind Louise Penny’s chief inspector, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, as he unraveled the mystery of the socialite CC de Poitiers’s fatal electrocution at a curling competition. At night, reclining in her easy chair by the living-room window, she takes out her hearing aid and falls so wholly into these stories—pages snapping crisply one after another, thumbnail chewed to a nubbin—that she forgets about the dog waiting by the door and the kettle whistling on the stove.
What my mother-in-law does not read, however—and this is a point of pride for her—is true crime. She will read about the decapitation by snowmobile of a fictional errant insurance salesman (through the transmogrification of literature, she becomes the main character, literally stumbling on the head of the late insurer), but if a murder has actually occurred, it somehow precludes her interest. For my mother-in-law, something distinguishes the real murder from the fake, something prevents her from reading the former yet allows her to consume the latter with immense enthusiasm. She loves the characters in murder mysteries, she’s told me, their foibles and their deadpan philosophizing, but when she reads true crime, there’s a sense that the events are being sensationalized for her consumption, and she simply feels uncomfortable. This discomfort has been very much on my mind lately, because over the past few years, as I’ve undergone that slow process of becoming a part of my wife’s family, I’ve also been writing one of those very books, a book about an actual murder. Read More