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lansbury-as-miss-marple-reading-up-on-poisonsThere is this very sweet elderly lady I’ve known all my life. She’s past eighty, unmarried, very busy with gardening, embroidery and good deeds. And she is a voracious reader – with a taste, it turns out, for crime stories, mysteries and thrillers. Oh, and police procedurals on the telly. The gorier they are, the better Miss M. likes them.

“They are more reassuring than the News,” she explains when asked. “In books and tv shows, Awful Things don’t go unpunished, the culprits pay for their evil deeds, thanks to the Police and the Judiciary’s efforts.”

Which makes me think of this Thomas Berger quote:

Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.

And I know it is mostly about a compulsion to tell yet untold tales, but in a sense, it can also apply to Miss M. and the immemorial meaning of storytelling. Storytellers provide humankind with moral models and cautionary tales, in which the violation of shared rules is punished, and there is a price attached to mistakes. Of course, the focus of this narratives has shifted considerably through the millennia, and rivers of ink have gone into showing all the ways in which the punishment for rule-breaking can miss its mark, be disregarded, manipulated or misunderstood.

And yet, countless centuries of philosophical speculation, literary deconstruction and the occasional bout of moral nihilism can’t prevent elderly ladies – and, if we are entirely honest, us all – from finding a sense of satisfaction and closure when the Murderer is captured by the Police, found guilty by the Jury, and justly sentenced by the Judge.

After all, Awful Things happen, justice is not always dependable in this world, and a matter of sheer faith when it comes to the next… But books, but movies, but stories… ah, that’s different. Safer. Reassuring.

Why do writers write? Because it’s not (always) there.