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Detective Work

We had planned for the weekend to be sunny, but we awoke to a deluge of rain on Saturday morning, mist rising lazily from the lake. I was in the ‘States for a week, relaxing at my parents’ lake cabin in northern Minnesota, basking in the small pleasures of being back “home”: walks with my Dad, English everywhere, 30 Rock. Our family’s two yellow labs, stretched out sleeping on the carpet, could have cared less about the storm, but Dad and I had been looking forward to swimming and boating weather. “I think it’ll clear by noon,” Dad said hopefully, but after lunch the rain had only gotten heavier, and the sky was an impenetrable gray.

We resigned ourselves to reading in the living room, the rain a patient percussion to our flipping pages (the two of us hadn’t gone iPad for our reading needs yet). I started with All the King’s Men, but quickly grew bogged down by lofty language that felt as oppressive as the weather outside. I was also distracted by a vague ennui, a heaviness I couldn´t quite place: was it mildewy memories? The limbo of being between two worlds, Germany and America? Or just the summer rain?

Impatient, I tossed my novel to the side, rose, stretched, and moved to the cabin’s bookshelves, where I spied a long row of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys detective novels. I had devoured them as a kid, and though it hadn’t occurred to me to pick them up since then, I now felt myself drawn to them with a faint magnetism.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. The sun didn’t come out until late Sunday afternoon, and even then I couldn’t put down The Clue in the Old Diary when Dad and I finally took the boat out. The following Tuesday, I tucked a Nancy Drew into my carry-on for my flight back to Berlin, and felt a little embarrassed when my neighbor stole a skeptical glance at the cover (a good argument for reading Nancy Drew on an iPad, after all).

What had hooked me? Obviously, I was entranced by the twists and turns of plot that had so absorbed me as a child, making me notorious in my family for not hearing a word when I reading. But falling into that world anew made me consider its devices more carefully. What makes mysteries so delicious? Is it the puzzle of the mystery or the payoff of its unraveling?

Presumably, the difference between “serious” literary fiction and kids’ mystery series is the premise that mysteries either can or cannot be neatly solved (nothing is easily resolved in Faulkner, whereas Nancy always nabs the crook). But the genres are united in the joy of human mystery itself, and the distinct pleasure of slow unveiling, or deeper insight.

Sometimes, in the identity politics-ridden world that we live in, I think we forget this. All too often, casting after your own identity (female/male, gay/straight, Asian/Caucasian, TCK/immigrant) becomes such a tortured, agonized process, with the hope that calling yourself part of one community or another will explain away any alienation you experience as an adult. This falls into the same trap as the “it’s all my parents’ fault” school of retrospection. We forget the thrill of detective work.

Ultimately, we are all engaged in deep mysteries about our lives—what happened, what’s happening now, where we’re headed. Denying the exhilaration of enigmas, and leaping to easy answers to explain away discomfort, only results in “wild goose chases,” as Frank Hardy would say. (As in, “Geez, Joe, those bank robbers sure led us on a wild goose chase! We’re fifty miles away from Bayport now, and no closer to knowing where those gold bars have gone!”)

Perhaps I should speak from personal experience. More often than necessary, I find myself blaming my TCK background for current uncertainties or issues that arise. How many times have I sorrowfully decided, “Of course, I must be feeling this way because I moved around so much.” Or: “That person won’t ‘get’ me because they didn’t grow up the way I did.” Of course there are cultural differences. Of course it’s important to learn more about who you are, and embrace whatever identit(ies) make sense to you. But everything need not be so tragic, nor so automatic.

In a Wikipedia era, answers are all too easy to come by. But Nancy Drew never solved a mystery by googling it! (Also because the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. Not to mention the computer.) But I say: let’s keep the TCK identity mysterious! And also: intriguing! Maybe we won’t get congratulated by the police and given heirlooms by old widows when we glimpse insights into the riddles of our own lives. But I would rather enjoy hunting for clues to complicated questions than walk around feeling doomed to displacement, just because of my nomadic childhood. That’s just my hunch, anyways.

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