Yesterday, I learned belatedly of the death of someone to whom I was once close. Although I had not seen him for many years, I felt sad about the conversations that will now never take place and the questions that will now never be asked or answered.
Death is one of the stocks-in-trade of crime writers. Do we write about it carelessly or frivolously? I don’t think so. Murder stories tend to begin with one or more innocent deaths that have to be avenged – usually, but not always, according to the law – in order to restore the moral balance and demonstrate to the reader that all is right with the world again. Often the perpetrator dies or is killed; a good writer will shape this death into a kind of catharsis, so that the survivors can ‘move on’.
Real life is messier. Humans are creatures governed by memory. An individual’s ‘life’ therefore neither begins with his or her birth, nor ends with his or her death.
When I was a child, I listened to a radio programme in which was interviewed a very old lady whose great aunt had once met Jane Austen. The great aunt had recounted to her the conversation that had taken place and she was repeating it for the benefit of listeners in the 1960s. It had therefore been passed on at just one remove from an author whose life had ended in 1817. Why are we fascinated by such things? I think it is because we like to believe that we are part of a continuum that is greater than one person. It is more modest than a quest for immortality, but contains a strong element of the desire to survive for some time in memory.
As a baby, I was held by each of my great-grandmothers, both of whom were born in the 1870s. Both died before I started school, but I have hazy memories of them. I hope that, in my turn, I shall be remembered by my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, who, by the law of averages, are likely to live into the twenty-second century. This represents almost a quarter of a millennium of ‘immortality’. Can we ask for more?
Rest in peace, John.