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Monday, August 20, 2007

Why I Love Mysteries

I thought I'd kick off our new BOOK BLOG with a reprise from my personal blog of some notes on my talk at the Tigard Library in July. The books I chose were ones that show how mysteries can offer a special punch at the end. My thesis was that a really good “pow” is a descendent of the Greek idea of dramatic catharsis, and comes from the reader’s expectations being different from the protagonist’s -- due, in part, to the fact the reader knows the book will honor the mystery conventions (whether in the observance or the breach). Here are the books I discussed, and why:

TRENT’S LAST CASE, by E.C. Bentley was one of the first mysteries to try to astonish and not just surprise the reader. Also, by making a game of hoodwinking the reader, it indirectly introduced the idea that the author should play fair. To be reissued later this year.

GREEN FOR DANGER, by Christiana Brand is one of the best “fair play” mysteries of the golden age – no gimmicks, gadgets, or dramatic character changes, but a realistic and moving examination of a murder that still manages to astonish. The rules of Fair Play – limited number of possible suspects, the reader is given all the information needed to solve the crime – establish a set of reader expectations for at least the next 50 years of mysteries. MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, by Frances Iles has a terrific punch that comes entirely the first person narrative, which draws the reader into identifying with the narrator and which creates certain very specific expectations – in this case, one even more fundamental than that the narrator is not the murderer. The same story told word for word in the same way except for changing the first person to third would have an entirely different impact. Hitchcock tried to film this, as Suspicion, but couldn’t come up with a decent ending for this reason. [Sorry – out of print and unavailable]

MISS PYM DISPOSES, by Josephine Tey featured probably the most startling shock at the end of any mystery to that point. Any time there is a surprise ending there is what I call an “after book experience,” as the reader sifts back through the story to piece together the clues to what was really going on, as opposed to what seemed to be the case at first reading. Miss Pym took mystery’s “after book experience” to new heights, creating an extended dialogue with the reader after the book was closed.

THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED, by Sara Caudwell takes advantage of the gradual relaxation of the rules of fair play to astonish the reader by playing fair when we thought it was all just for fun. Caudwell takes a second healthy poke at the reader’s expectations by successfully concealing the narrator’s gender: how long did it take you before you realized that Professor Hilary Tamar was not necessarily the man or woman you had assumed him/her to be?

PRESUMED INNOCENT, by Scott Turow gets the better of the reader by lulling us into thinking we got the better of the author. The “after book experience” on this one includes reliving the final scene word for word from a different point of view.

PARK LANE SOUTH QUEENS, by Mary Ann Kelly snuck in because I love it, but also because it has unique gimmick for surprising the reader: the second book in the series reveals that the solution in the first one was wrong. Unfortunately, the tone of the sequel, Foxglove, is a little too dark to make this the laugh-out-loud punch it should be. [Sorry – out of print and unavailable]

A PLACE OF EXECUTION, by Val McDermid offers a surprise based not on whodunit (as the reader expects) but on what it was that was “dun”. The surprise in this one probably generated the most explosive reader reaction since Miss Pym.

DECEPTION, by Denise Mina turns the reader’s expectations and sympathies on their heads and uses a pretty nifty surprise solution to the murder itself as a sucker punch to lull the reader before the real surprise at the end.

THE USED WOMEN'S BOOK CLUB, by Paul Bryers is written in the present tense solely (I think) to set us up for the ambiguity of the very last word in the book, which invites an even more complicated and extended “after book experience” than the one in Miss Pym. Fittingly for such a cerebral book, the punch is more intellectual than emotional.

TENDERWIRE by Claire Kilroy, though not really a mystery, uses mystery techniques – an unreliable narrator who drops clues as to what’s really going on more by what she leaves out than what she says – to create a very satisfying punch at the finale.

PALE BLUE EYE by Louis Bayard is a straight fair play mystery with clever misdirection and a nice surprise at the end. What gives it a noteworthy “pow” is the elegance of the clues and the way the finale brings both a fulfillment and a reversal of our expectations about the developing relationship between the narrator, a retired policeman, and his Dr. Watson (who happens to be the young Edgar Allan Poe).

I have given “gold stars” to most of these books, and included almost all of them on lists of MBTB’s favorites for the year, or, in the case of the earlier ones, for the 20th century’s best. You can see many of MBTB's staff favorites over the years by clicking on the link below.

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