Lost and Found: Why Novelists Are Always Searching

I can find things. Over the years, I've found seven wayward wedding rings, dozens of missing earrings, uncountable keys and cell phones, several thousand dollars in cash on the street (including two major wads of drug money), and a lost hamster named April who was hiding inside the wall of my daughter's bedroom. It's not a skill I'm particularly proud of. In fact, it's not really a skill. It's just something I can do, in much the same way that some people always know which way is north.

I never know where north is.

I'm not bragging about being a finder. There are plenty of much more useful skills that I don't have. Like being on time. Or investing money so that it turns into more money, recognizing faces, or repairing broken things. Those skills seem just as mysterious to me as finding things might seem to someone who tends to lose things. Everyone's got a secret skill, whether they know it or not.

When I was writing Third Rail, my debut mystery novel, I decided to give my main character – Eddy Harkness a Boston narcotics detective – the ability to find things. Why not? Being a finder has served me well. And might help a detective even more:

At a sidewalk shooting in Dorchester or a drug dealer's triple-decker in Mission Hill, Harkness could find the drugs, guns, money, shell casings, and tossed cell phones. It wasn't supernatural. Harkness didn't need any help from the spirit world. . . Lost things don't want to stay lost. Money wants a warm wallet and street drugs crave a narrow pocket. Rings call out for a finger, cell phones want a hand, and bullets need a gun. Harkness didn't do anything special to find them. They just called out on subtle frequencies and he listened.

Detectives pay close attention, of course. But I wanted to go beyond that, to the level of intuition, dousing, and Ouija boards. To show what I mean, let me tell you about my favorite find.

The Case of the Missing Ring

When a neighbor lost an irreplaceable family heirloom, her great-great-grandmother's wedding ring, my wife volunteered my skills to find it. The ring might be in her house or her office, the neighbor wasn't sure. It seemed unlikely that anyone would ever find the ring, much less a reluctant finder enlisted long after it was lost. But as I thought about it, a notion came to me (psychics call this claircognizance or clear-knowing) – and I knew that the ring was in a sunny room near the outside of her house.

When the day came to put my skills to the test, I waited on the porch, giving into a moment of threshold anxiety. What if I couldn't find the ring? It would be beyond embarrassing. I would look like a fake, a dope, a non-finder prowling around my neighbor's house. I stood in the foyer, talking awkwardly with the ring-loser, her face a mix of hope and disbelief. Behind her, a ray of sun fell on the stairs.

I began my work, following the sunlight up to a bright upstairs bedroom. I sat in a chair directly in the sun, which pointed my gaze at a dresser. Just looking at it made the hair on my arms stand up. I opened the third drawer, reached way in the back, and felt a cool circle of silver and diamonds on my fingertips.

In all, finding the ring took less than five minutes.

I was relieved and our neighbor was thoroughly spooked. To this day, she treats me with a little hesitance, the way you treat a man with a dark secret. But it's neither dark nor a secret. The way I think about it, nothing's ever lost. It's just waiting to be found. Access those subtle frequencies and you know where they are. This skill is by no means singular; I've met plenty of people who can find things. An inordinate number of them are writers.

The literature of loss

Writing is inherently about searching – at first for a story, then for the words to tell it. It's about searching for memories and details and trying to resurrect places and eras that are gone. And it's about becoming hyper-tuned to intuition. For these reasons, many plots center on loss and the search for the lost (often irreplaceable or unfindable) person or object. Consider:

The Bible (God, others) – the search for a homeland that doesn't suck

Beowulf – Grendel's always looking for that lost arm

The Story of the Grail (Chrétien de Troyes) – all Authurian literature is about looking for that misplaced grail

In Search of Lost Time (Marcel Proust) – where did that lost time go?

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) – the search for lost love, and also for drinks

Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) – the search for scalps

A Child In Time (Ian McEwan) – one of the many gut-wrenching novels about lost children

Gone Girl (it's not called Found Girl, is it?)

Every Detective Novel Ever Written – someone/something is missing or stolen and must be found

Look at your own bookshelves through the lens of loss and you'll see what I mean.

Writers as finders

In addition to being quirky, depressed, and bottomless vessels for alcohol, writers are also especially attuned to loss. To prove this not-very-original theory, I conducted some high-level research recently – paying Facebook $6.99 to "promote" a query about loss (what they lost, and when) to my Facebook friends, most of whom are writers, editors, or other card-carrying members of the scribbling classes.

More than 45 percent lost a close relative (father/mother/sibling/other) before the age of 18. And a whooping 72 percent came from broken homes, divorce creating a different but still-painful variant of loss. In this context, novels become a method of searching, using our imaginations as microscopes or telescopes, for what we've lost – or at least for some explanation about why or how it came to be lost.

The lost-found dynamic isn't just for writers, either. Is it any wonder that two of the crowning technological achievements of our era are the search engine and GPS? Now you can find any fact in seconds – and never get lost, no matter how far you travel.

Careful what you look for

Back to Third Rail for a moment. Being a finder isn't always an enviable skill to have, as Detective Eddy Harkness discovers when he finds a long-dead little girl rotting behind the walls of a meth lab.

Harkness did his part, revealing the hidden, for what it was worth. Now he could only drift away, tainted by revelation.

Being a finder – whether you're a detective or a writer – is a double-edged skill, freighted with consequences. You never know what you might find once you start looking.