Whenever I’m in one of those musty, crowded “antique” shops, which are more about nostalgia than objets d’art (true antique shops intimidate me), I often find myself flipping through stacks of old photographs or turning the pages of old family photo albums with cracked leather covers and dry bindings. Although I never buy these photos, I’m always curious about them, particularly if the photos are candid: Two kids bouncing on a bright yellow trampoline. A woman and child bundled in red winter coats on their way down a snowy bank on a sled. An elderly man propped up in his chair at the beach gazing out at the sea.
Of course, I have no idea who these people are, and suddenly, my imagination ignites, and I begin wondering about them, about who they are and where they are, and of course, if they’re dead or alive. I immediately assume that the owner of the photos is dead. After all, wouldn’t he or she have held on to their precious keepsakes otherwise? There are photos in my family’s album that I’ve relied on as touchstones for my sense of self and would be impossible for me to give up. One photo in particular, a photo of me, only four at the time, and my father standing side-by-side on a damp day both clad in raincoats is a personal symbol for me, a way of understanding the brief relationship I had with my father. He died of lung cancer when I was eight.
Anyway, I wonder about the past owners of photographs and the subjects of those photographs, because it seems sad to me that tokens of a life, images that would only have meaning for their owner, are now for sell—for cheap, too. I can use my imagination and invent meaning for them, but by the point they reach me in that musty shop, their original meaning has ceased to be.
In the beginning of a mystery, you are offered a collection of clues—much like a stack of jumbled photos. A main character, usually a detective figure, will set to sorting out all these clues, making sense of the family album, so to speak. (Mysteries are often about families, if not literally, then figuratively.) Lesser mysteries will sort everything out for the reader, vanquishing the sense of mystery pervasive at the beginning. This is unfortunate, though, because you’ve quashed the wonder.
It’s a sad, eerie, wonder-full feeling standing there in the shop dreaming about the lives of the people in old photo albums. Although I’m dying to know more, I don’t want an absolute revelation, but rather something that deepens the mystery. The fiction I most enjoy and admire, whether it’s a mystery or literary novel, should be like slowly flipping through an old photo album, where as you look at the photos, you gradually gain a better understanding of the people in them, and the individual who compiled them, but you’re never certain that you know everything about these people. Only your known imagination can fill in the gaps.