Year of Mysteries, Part 8: The Last Place

Woops. I just realized the title of this series changed from “Year of Mystery Novels” to “Year of Mysteries” at Part 5. Sorry. I try to keep this consistent for searching purposes.

The main point of this series was to examine the mystery novel genre. There are people that read a few a week. There’s something about the genre that keeps people coming back.

I feel like my book choices to this point have basically avoided the “typical mystery.” Pretty much every book in this series is considered a “classic” or has been award winning. In other words, there’s nothing typical about them. Hundreds of new mystery novels come out every month, satisfying readers of the genre without the fancy prose of award-winners.

I went to my local used book store and went to the mystery section. I wanted to pick something at random to get a better feel for what a generic, contemporary mystery novel felt like.

This was a bit hard. The first few I picked up were classified as “suspense thrillers.” I wasn’t opposed to this, but I also couldn’t tell if there was an actual mystery from the back cover. I finally grabbed The Last Place by Laura Lippman.

It was by a bestselling and award-winning author, but this particular novel hadn’t won awards. This made it the perfect candidate.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the seventh book in the Tess Monaghan series, even though nowhere on or in the book told me this.

I read it anyway.

The novel definitely references some stuff from previous books, but it is perfectly readable as a standalone. I assume this is one of those slow character growth things that happens over multiple books.

Tess is the main character, and she is a private investigator. She has anger management issues and basically messes up a child molester. So she gets assigned a community service project by the courts and has to investigate a police department. She checks up on five unrelated murders to make sure they followed procedure, etc.

As it goes on, she finds out that all five have major issues and are unresolved and are possibly related.

The first thing I noticed was the solid prose style. I often read literary stuff, which tends to be fancy. I also read fantasy, which tends to be wordy. This book had that pristine, clean style that I tend to call “bestseller” style.

I can’t go into all the details here, but it just means few adverbs, active voice, just enough description, pared down sentences, etc. It really makes the book come alive fast in your mind without any excess thinking or confusing sentences.

This brings up the next point. This was a page-turner through and through. I also can’t remember the last time I read something like that. I’d say it’s almost too polished. If you’ve studied plotting and structure, you can see how each scene is crafted to raise the stakes and complicate the plot just enough to push you along.

One thing I think this book did better than any of the other mysteries was to provide a lot of red herrings. At one point, the investigators discuss the possibility that the male killer could actually be a female. They go into depth on how this could be pulled off, despite being married, by referencing Boys Don’t Cry.

I found myself thinking: what? No way! Wait, but maybe. 

It was never meant to be taken all that seriously, but little things like this added up to keeping me unsettled. Whenever I thought maybe I was getting a handle on things, something would come up to remind me that I just didn’t have enough information yet.

I was thinking about characterization, since I recently wrote a post on it. One character has a quirky “thing” they do. This is often one of those cheap techniques that give readers a false sense of depth.

He’s really into movie quotes and says them all the time. Each time it happens, you think, oh yeah, that’s the guy that does the quote thing. This made the character more into a caricature than a fully fleshed out character.

Overall, this was a fast and enjoyable read. I definitely understand why people tear through these at the rate of a couple a week.

If you’re following along, I really only have one book left on my list: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I’ve been avoiding it, because I’ve heard it has a beastly beginning that’s almost impossible to suffer through. We’ll see…

 

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Year of Mysteries, Part 7: The Intuitionist

This was a somewhat enjoyable, quick read, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The Intuitionist takes place in a strange alternate world. It’s presumably alternate history, because much of the politics has to do with integration and Lila being the first female, black elevator inspector.

But it’s not quite our world, because there’s a huge bureaucracy of elevator inspectors, including a training institute (Institute for Vertical Transport), professional society, and even textbooks on philosophical schools of thought on proper inspection techniques.

The setup of the novel is that Lila Mae Watson is an “Intuitionist” inspector with an impeccable record. She inspects elevators by riding them and “intuiting” any problems. This is opposed to the school called the “Empiricists,” which inspect the old fashioned way: getting into the innards with their hands and eyes.

One of Watson’s elevators goes down, and she suspects it was sabotaged to make it look like the Intuitionists are untrustworthy. There’s also other political motivation going on with it being an election year.

So far, so good. This is quite a great premise setting up a way to discuss serious issues surrounding theory of mind, epistemology, etc.

What were my problems with it?

Well, there’s this idea in art that if you treat something as serious, no matter how unbelievable and silly it is, you can get it to come across as believable. But this takes really committing to the idea.

Whitehead commits.

This world is full of tons of details from what such a society would look like, yet I just never really bought the concept. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much, especially with the race aspect, which I haven’t even brought up yet.

I think the book would work better if she was set up because she was black or if she was set up because she was an Intuitionist. Trying to have it both ways created a lot of unnecessary awkwardness, and it softened the force of truly committing to one theme. By splitting the difference, neither came across as particularly compelling.

I’ll try to explain this a bit more.

The novel works on a speculative fiction level without bringing race into it at all. The Empiricists want to get rid of the Intuitionists. They are looked down upon both within the world of inspectors and in the world at large.

It makes sense that someone would set up the main character to have one of her elevators fall. Then the world can blame her for not “properly” examining the elevator, and the whole Intuitionist school of thought takes a hit for more “reliable” methods (though, statistically intuitionists do better, a clever twist Whitehead put into the world).

It would work brilliantly as both a mystery plot and as a work of speculative fiction in which Intuitionists play the role of a scapegoated, marginalized population.

In fact, when race gets brought up, it’s almost like an afterthought and thrown in because that’s Whitehead’s “thing” rather than working naturally in the novel. The book will be in the middle of something else, and then it kind of pops up randomly: oh, yeah, and you’re black! So it’s probably that, too!

So, as astute readers, we’ve noticed this is what Whitehead wants to do, and we’re a little annoyed that characters keep implying this conflation of race and Intuitionists. But then Whitehead commits the ultimate writing sin, and he decides he doesn’t trust readers to figure this out (though it’s sooo obvious).

A character says:

“So I don’t know what the official story is, but you get the gist from his speech. He’s making it into a political thing because you’re an Intuitionist. And colored, but he’s being clever about it.”

No. Just no.

I mean, is it still an allegory if the writer flat out tells us what the pieces mean?

If, as a writer, you’re ever tempted to talk directly to a reader like this through a character because you’re afraid they haven’t caught on, then you’ve done something wrong. If you’re that worried, make it clearer through subtext some other way. Or, as I’ve proposed, maybe just clarify what the themes and metaphors are instead of trying to conflate a bunch of stuff.

After such on-the-nose dialogue, I kept expecting our main character to blurt out at some point: I chose the elevator profession because it raises and lowers people to different social strata with the rich bankers having parties on the roof and the lowly doorman at the bottom. The elevator is the great equalizer. Anyone can move to any position in an instant as long as good inspectors keep them working.

Yikes. I wish I could say such a moment never came, but it did. It was a much pithier and eloquent formulation:

…horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.

As I said, it definitely kept my attention with a unique premise and fully fleshed out speculative world, but it could have used a lot more focus and subtlety. Not to be mean, but it reads like a first novel, and that’s what it is. The flashes of the more confident Whitehead we see in his later The Underground Railroad are in here, and they are brilliant when they happen.

I’ve seen this book compared to The Crying of Lot 49 and Invisible Man. Both are apt comparisons, but I’d rather read the former for political conspiracy theory paranoia and the latter for its excellent racial commentary than something that tries to do both at the same time, just worse.

Year of Mysteries, Part 6: A Crime in the Neighborhood

This month I read A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne for the Year of Mysteries. I’m not going to wait to the end for spoilers, so be warned!

This book reminded me a lot of Mystic River, the second book we did for the series, in that it presented a crime and then immediately shifted away to how that crime affected a neighborhood, relationships, and characters.

I’d even hesitate to call this a true mystery, because almost none of the plot involves solving the crime. The crime ends up not being solved at all!

Overall, I liked this book but didn’t love it like Mystic River. I think this came from how unsatisfying it was. We have literally only one suspect. The main character gives us tons and tons of evidence to show that he did it. All I kept thinking through the whole book is how obvious a red herring this was.

I felt like Berne wrote herself into a corner. If it turned out to be the only suspect, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious it was. If it turned out not to be him, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious of a red herring it all was.

And I get it: the book is not about the murder! So let’s get to what it’s really about.

The novel does a great job in showing how one moment that doesn’t even fully involve someone can permanently shape the rest of their life. The narrator is an adult retelling these events from her ten-year-old self, and we get a believable set of emotionally complex reactions from her surrounding the events of that summer.

One particularly good aspect of the book was the prose, considering the voice was a ten-year-old. Many writers use children as an excuse to be lazy, but Berne nails the naivete and immaturity of tone while still having clear and sophisticated prose style. This is no easy feat, and really added to the atmosphere of the novel.

The book did suffer from a “soggy middle.” I’d say this is a quintessential example of why people use a “Mid-Act 2 twist” to keep the forward momentum. Nothing of the sort happened here. I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the middle of this book even though I just read it. The main character goes about her days with pretty much no progression or complication.

I also think the book suffered from trying to be about too much. It had a tight focus on the main character’s family, a looser focus on the neighborhood, but then it tried to throw in a bunch of stuff from the 70’s, like Watergate, as a backdrop.

I get that there’s a parallel of themes she’s trying to draw on: the country lost its naive innocence about government in the same way Marsha lost her naive innocence from the crime. But it’s too loose and not exactly parallel (or contrary) to succeed. For example, Marsha had a bunch of evidence and turned out to be wrong, whereas the Watergate evidence was correct.

So I’m just not sure on this one. I flew through it in a few days once I got started, but it felt unfocused and unsatisfying in the end. Since I liked Berne’s writing so much, I’m interested in checking out her later works to see if it evolves into something I like as a whole more.

As usual, I give the next book in the series in case you want to follow along. It will be: The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. I’m pretty excited to get some speculative fiction aspects into one of these.

Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 4: The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is probably my least favorite mystery novel of the year so far.

Let’s start with the good. Chandler’s style of writing is amazing. It’s full of sentences that contribute to the noir atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” It obviously makes no sense as a description, but it says so much about the attitude and psychology of the main character, Philip Marlowe.

Paying attention to the little things pays off. For example, when Marlowe enters a used bookshop early on, he asks for a highly specific book. I thought this was the author filling the book with needless detail, a boring bad habit of some writers. But in actuality, it’s a book that doesn’t exist, so the fact that the used bookseller didn’t know this showed they were a fraud. This payoff only comes to readers paying attention to this type of thing.

So I thought the writing style and layering in of small details that pay off were excellent. In fact, maybe the best of all the mystery novels I’ve read this year.

The problem is that I had a very hard time picking the book up when I stopped reading it for a session. I just wasn’t invested in the plot or characters. I think this had to do with the fact that this “hardboiled” subgenre is a slower burn. It’s more about gradually exposing a much larger situation. This means the tension comes from the context you’re given rather than an immediate threat or mystery or suspects.

I don’t even have to reveal too much of the plot to discuss what felt off. I think a lot of the character actions were unmotivated. People are murdered, but I found myself thinking: really? Over that? I know they were “criminals,” and by that I mean “producing pornography” and “being homosexual,” but it’s not like they were mob bosses hardened to murder. It was too extreme for the context.

Everything in the plot felt more like convenience than truly motivated action. I get that we have to look at it through the lens of the time. “Revenge porn” is bad enough today, having naked pictures loose of the daughter of a high-ranking person back in the 20’s could destroy that person. I get that.

But I never really felt the danger or tension or potential catastrophes from the way the novel was told. It was like a big puzzle, and each piece had been placed there for the purpose of completing the puzzle and not as a truly motivated plot point.

Maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, because this is a pretty universally praised book. One of the cool things about it was that you see basically every hardboiled detective trope in this book, as it was the first of its kind.

I think I’m going to take a brief break and then come back with something modern. It hasn’t occurred to me before now that people might want to read along with me. I’ll be doing Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. I’ve heard it might upset the “purists,” but I’m trying to get a variety over the course of the year.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 3: Murder on the Orient Express

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As I pointed out when I started the series, I was woefully ignorant of the mystery genre. I picked up Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express from the library. Something surprised me about it. It was far along in a row of books that all looked the same. This is actually the 10th book in the Hercule Poirot series of detective novels.

The general setting of the novel is quite good for creating tension. First off, Christie introduces the main characters very early and gives them all motivations/suspicions for committing the crime. This set me up as the reader to believe it could be any of them.

Note how different this is from the first two mystery novels I read this year, in which one person was the prime suspect, and then as new evidence came to light, the prime suspect would switch out from under you. I enjoyed Christie’s style much more.

The setting ramped up the tension, because the murder happens on a stopped train due to a snow issue. This heightens the tension because without knowing who did it or why, anyone could be next. I mean, they’re trapped on a train with a murderer! How great of a premise is that?

The overall execution I liked much better than Sherlock Holmes, because the plot focused on solving the crime. Holmes felt more like a character study with the mystery as an afterthought.

The prose style of the novel felt very dated. Description was pared down to a minimum. Sometimes all you had to go on was dialogue. I almost took a picture of the book open where there were no dialogue tags or exposition at all on either page. It’s like reading a play where the person speaking isn’t identified.

Outside of that one issue, I ended up really enjoying this one. I saw the appeal of the mystery novel as a genre for the first time. It was straight up fun to try to figure out who did it and why. And the end was…pretty surprising.

Spoiler Warning: We’ll dig in to the details a bit more now. You are warned, though, this book has been around for 100 years and there are many adaptations for film, tv, and stage, so if you haven’t been spoiled yet, I doubt you’re planning on reading it anyway.

The first major twist is that the identity of the victim comes into question. A note is left that seems to identify the victim as a man who killed a girl but got off on a technicality (he was travelling under a false identity). This is an interesting twist, because it shifts everything you thought you knew, including the dead victim, who shouldn’t be able to influence the story.

Part II is highly structured. Each chapter is a single scene with a sole suspect. We get evidence pointing toward each of them. But at the same time confusing, strange things pop up about previous suspects.

I could see some people finding this to be too rigid a structure, because it doesn’t flow like a normal novel. Instead, we get episodic chapters. But I liked the approach, because there are so many characters, this structure lets you keep track of each one separately. It actually reminded me of playing a game of “Clue.” As the reader, you have to keep thinking through the logical consistencies, inconsistencies, and possibilities.

Part III then walks you through these logical steps to connect the dots in places you’ve probably missed. This part reminded me a bit of how Sherlock Holmes works. It focuses a lot more on the deductive genius of Hercule Poirot.

The end result is a little disappointing. Poirot concludes that everyone on the train is in on it. This explains a bunch of strange coincidences, like everyone on the train randomly having strong ties to the girl who had been murdered.

But on further reflection, the ending wasn’t as disappointing as I originally thought. They would have gotten away with it if Poirot hadn’t randomly been called back to London. The only people on the train would have been people in on the crime.

Poirot has used his great mind to come up with a plausible alternate way the murder could have happened in which the murderer gets off the train. This is what he presents to the authorities, and it adds an interesting layer to the ending in which we have to judge whether he did the right thing by taking justice into his own hands.

 

 

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.