Cammie McGovern was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and received the Nelson Algren Award in short fiction. Her work has been published in Redbook, Seventeen, Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly, and other publications. This is her second novel.
The Accidental DetectiveCammie McGovern on the inspiration behind her new crime novel, Eye Contact
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Crime defines an “accidental detective” as one who is compelled by circumstance into a crime-solving role, sometimes by proximity but frequently by a loved one’s relation to the crime, “as in a mother who feels her determination will serve to avenge or prevent a crime against her child where police efforts appear to be failing.” Interesting that an “accidental detective” would so often be a mother because what does mothering feel like from the very first sleep-deprived day when you are handed a red-faced, squalling infant, and told “you’ll figure it out,” but an unsolicited detective job? The first time this happened, I wanted to say to the well-meaning baby nurse, “No I won’t. I really won’t figure it out.” As anyone who’s ever spent time with one knows, babies are a loud and demanding mystery. They sit happily for hours in a dirty diaper and then cry uncontrollably when the cat walks by. A mother’s first song of succor most often sounds like a sing-songy version of a bad interrogation with a reticent witness. (“What is it, baby? Are you hungry? Are you tired?”) All mothers become the kind of detective who learns to feel her answers and intuit solutions. When peace arrives alongside a desperations bottle and fuzzy white blanket, you breathe a sigh of relief. There you have it; mini-mystery solved.
When you’re the mother of an autistic child, that mystery of unarticulated needs and wailing distress cuts deeper and goes on longer, past the time typical children are pointing pudgy fingers and putting a few words together to make their needs known. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, and the medical complications that lead to it are as varied as the children themselves, every mother of an autistic child becomes a detective, sooner or later, logging in hours on the internet, researching the infinite number of therapies, knowing all of them will help some children, trying to determine, which ones will help yours.I started writing Eye Contact having read many mysteries, but never thinking I’d write one myself. For fifteen years, I’d been writing literary short stories and novels: quiet, character-driven stories where feelings were usually the most vulnerable things at stake. Then, in the midst of raising a young child with autism—of assuming the role of nightly detective—I got an idea that needed a real crime: What if a child with autism was the only witness to a particularly brutal murder? What if the crime galvanized a community to circle around and press closer to this reticent child who had only his mother to translate the clues he was able to offer up?
Great idea, it seemed to me, in the first rush of writing. Cara, the mother, has parented Adam long enough to be a confident detective of his moods. She can know what he would do and what he’s not doing now and read meaning in his small choices and in his silence. Great idea, I kept thinking, until halfway through when I stalled out completely. The problem, I realized, was the case itself and her “accidental” status in relationship to it. A mother of uniquely vulnerable child in such a situation (in fact, the mother of any child, I’d wager) cares first and foremost about her child. She might grieve for the victim and poor parents, but her priority will be on helping her child recover from the crime, and move past it, not on solving it. She might come close to getting certain answers, by reading her son’s subtle signs, studying the contents of his backpack, the clothes he chooses and refuses to wear; she might intuit correctly that all these things mean something, but if she is what I wanted most to portray—a real mother of a real autistic child—she is, above all else, focused on a single thing: her child and his future.
In retrospect, I see what stopped me mid-book. An accidental detective, though not always a mother, works the way a mother does—on feeling and intuition. She’s not trained in crime-solving nor is she particularly interested in being so. She doesn’t press hard for answers, unless she’s pushing back to protect a loved one. Her motivation is her child; solving the crime is, by bad luck, a task that’s been handed to her. What the story needed, I realized, was a foil for her heart-and-feeling investigation. It needed someone who cared very little about the people involved and fixated exclusively on the puzzle of the case. Someone who walks into a room and focuses not on the sad oddity of a boy rocking and humming, but on the word he is misspelling with his Boggle cube letters. In short, it needed someone who walks around seeing only clues, not people.
Ironically, perhaps, the idea came to me when I was observing a social skills group of thirteen and fourteen year old boys with a laundry list of diagnosis, all probably somewhere on the spectrum. I was meant to be observing; they were meant to be discussing their own problems and infinite variety of mistakes they all made negotiating their way through days filled with people acting in ways none of them grasped easily. Though I was there to check out the group for my son’s sake, they got word I was a writer, working on a mystery that had autism in it, and they all shifted gears completely and focused not on me, but on my story: what was the crime? What were the clues so far? Answering their questions, I suddenly realized what my story needed: a high-functioning autistic boy as amateur detective.
An amateur detective is, of course, anyone who does not have crime-solving in their job description but does it anyway, and some of literature’s finest sleuths are, technically speaking, amateur status, straight back to Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mysteries defines amateur detective as someone who is moved to investigate a crime purely “by the intellectual challenge of it,” but there is—perhaps not officially—the subcategory of amateur detective sidekick. This is the person who pushes the envelope, presses witnesses past the point of decency, and goes beyond the bend for the sole purpose of collecting information. As Frederick Arnold states, the amateur sleuth sidekick “has the uncanny ability to do all the legwork and have all the pertinent information, and still not be able to see the solution.” Interesting how the world of autism and its many permutations lends itself to mysteries. How many of our favorite amateur sleuths have had a touch of the spectrum in them: overly fixated on the details of a case, obsessive pursuers of more information, fabulous clue-finders who can present volumes of facts and still scratch their heads in search of a solution. Dilys Winn, in Murder Ink, calls amateur detectives “those most endearing bumblers whose every act obscures rather than uncovers.” By investigating the crime, they obfuscate the truth, throw out red herrings and point everyone else in all the wrong directions. They are, as I discovered while writing Eye Contact, what keep the story going, because they care, above all else, about the story. They stay awake at night mulling over inconsistencies, leaping to false conclusions, leading everyone in