I love reading mysteries because a well written mystery delves deeply into the depths of the human heart and psyche. I’m in partial agreement with Beth O’Brien, who says:

For me, the mystery books to read are personal. I want to know what happens to those directly affected. The family, the friends, the victims themselves. The general fiction section is where you’ll find the kind of mysteries I like.

GENRE KRYPTONITE: QUIET, PERSONAL MYSTERIES

She had me right up until that last sentence. While it’s true that some very good mysteries appear on the general fiction shelves, more often the best mysteries are found right where you’d expect them to be, on the mystery shelves. The main reason for this is that, once a writer has written a mystery and been categorized as a mystery writer, most book stores and libraries will continue to put all that author’s subsequent books in the same spot.

Like O’Brien, I don’t care for cozy mysteries (the kind in which, if the mystery were a play, the crime would occur off stage). And I’m not a big fan of the drawing room mystery, in which the sleuth, whether professional or amateur, gathers all the possible suspects in the drawing room and explains why each, one by one, isn’t the killer; the last person left is therefore the guilty party, and the sleuth proceeds to explain how the killer did the deed and how the clever detective figured the whole complicated mess out.

And I don’t like horror. I recently read two novels that were described as psychological thrillers that made me realize exactly what my definition of horror is: literature that uses a supernatural or inhuman phenomenon to deliver the promised twist at the end. (I’m not going to name those two novels so as not to spoil their endings for anyone who hasn’t read them yet.) It’s human motivation and interaction that I’m interested in, not goblins, demons, or other malevolent but external forces.

Finally, O’Brien says that she doesn’t like procedurals or courtroom dramas, and I disagree with her there as well. Procedurals, which pit a detective (who may or may not be a police investigator) against a bad guy or gal, frequently provide a look into the minds of both sides of that human equation. Courtroom dramas do the same, and often at the same time examine how the legal system works and how it affects human behavior.

Ultimately, though, O’Brien and I agree on the most basic appeal of a mystery. For her, it’s “about the people, the character development,” and I second that. The best mysteries are not pure plot, with one extreme event following another, careening off in seemingly endless directions. My purpose in reading a mystery isn’t to see what wild, unforeseen surprise the writer can throw at me. I read mysteries to learn about why people do what they do, how they interact with others, and what drives them. The best mysteries display as much character development as plot.

Here, then, are five mysteries that both interested and enlightened me. And you might want to click on the link to O’Brien’s article, where she offers five more.

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

In the winter of 1963 in England, serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady began killing children. Val McDermid uses this historical event as the starting point for her novel, in which a 13-year-old girl, Alison Carter, disappears in a small, rural English community distrustful of outsiders. The investigation falls to George Bennett, a young, newly promoted inspector. Although Alison’s body was never found, someone was convicted and executed for her murder. Despite this seemingly successful conclusion, the case continued to haunt Bennett for the rest of his career.

Decades later, Bennett tells the story of this case to journalist Catherine Heathcote. But just as Heathcote’s book on the case is about to be published, Bennett calls to tell her to stop. When he tells her he has new information but refuses to explain, Heathcote undertakes her own investigation of the case.

I’ve chosen this one of McDermid’s novels because it has stuck with me for years, but almost any of her books is worth reading, particularly her stand-alone novels. This book demonstrates how effective a procedural mystery can be.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old real estate agent, is about to close up an open house at the end of the day when a van pulls up. It’s been a slow day, and she hopes this last visitor might just be the buyer she needs. Instead, the van holds a psychopath who kidnaps Annie and holds her captive in a remote cabin for a year before she manages to escape. (This all becomes clear right at the beginning of the book, so I’m not giving anything away here.)

Annie narrates most of the book as recordings of her therapy sessions after her escape. The last part describes her efforts to re-integrate back into society after her terrible experience. As harrowing as this sounds, Still Missing is a story of survival and resilience that I still think about now, several years after reading it.

”M” Is for Malice by Sue Grafton

This novel, from the middle of Grafton’s alphabet mysteries featuring PI Kinsey Millhone, is one of the best. When a family patriarch dies and leaves his estate to be divided equally among his four sons, three of them hire Kinsey to locate their long-lost brother, the black sheep of the family, who has been gone for 20 years.

Kinsey is a good investigator, so find him she does. However, after witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between the other three brothers, she advises the prodigal son to consider carefully whether he wants to return to the fold with three men who would obviously rather split the inheritance three ways than four.

”M” Is for Malice aptly demonstrates how deftly Sue Grafton creates credible, complex characters and how the mind of an investigator can be just as compelling as the mind of a villain.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were childhood friends in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston. But one day a strange car pulled up while they were out on the street and tried to pick them up. Sean and Jimmy didn’t get in, but Dave did. Dave later returned, but something had happened to him that drove him away from his friends and changed his life forever.

Years later, Dave Boyle is accused of killing Jimmy Marcus’s daughter, and Sean Devine is the police officer in charge of the murder investigation. This character-driven crime novel examines childhood, friendship, community, and the power of secrets. All the characters are sharply and complexly drawn in a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

There’s a good movie, but read the book first.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, in her early 20s, is a well-liked art teacher at an alternative school in Chicago. She’s the daughter of a prominent but cold and demanding judge and a socialite mother. Mia’s family can’t understand why she chooses to live in the city instead of in their large home in a much safer suburban neighborhood.

When Mia’s not-too-steady boyfriend fails to meet her at a bar in the city one night, Mia leaves the bar with a stranger who calls himself Colin. A notorious criminal has hired Colin to kidnap Mia for him, but Colin soon decides to hide Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota instead of turning her over to his employer. Mia’s disappearance isn’t discovered until Monday morning, when she doesn’t show up for work. Most of the narration shifts between several point-of-view characters—Mia’s mother, Eve; Gabe Hoffman, who’s in charge of the police investigation; and Colin—as the search continues with very few leads.

Such use of multiple points of view characterizes many works of contemporary fiction and reflects the fact that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the events. Novels that present several points of view show readers how different characters perceive the significance of events and how they interact with other characters. This approach to storytelling allows writers and readers to explore fully the deliciously messy and complex workings of human nature.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Last Week’s Links

How Stephen King Made Pop Culture Weird

If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Even my new hometown of Tacoma, WA, likes to call itself weird, as does Portland, OR, in the photo above.

Lincoln Michel explains that these are not isolated occurrences:

If you haven’t heard, “weird” is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.

He singles out King because “Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King’s impact on pop culture.” This article caught my eye because one of my recent reads was King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel alternate-history romance (“genre-bending,” although “genre-blending” would be more accurate) that kept me spellbound.

A theory of creepiness

If you’ve been hanging out around Notes in the Margin for a while, you’ve heard me say that I don’t read books about zombies, vampires, or werewolves. Even though I know these unnatural beings can be potent metaphors for contemporary life, I just don’t like them.

But, until I came across this article, I had never examined my revulsion with these creatures until I came across this article, which made me realize I dislike zombies, vampires, and werewolves because of their creepiness:

creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

In this article David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of the Human Nature Project, examines psychological theories in looking to answer the question “Why the enduring fascination with creepiness?”

Bending Mind and Time: 6 of the Best Time Travel Books

11_22_63I’ve always been fascinated by the use of time travel as a literary device. Matt Staggs begins this brief article with a look at the new book Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, a scientist’s look at representations of time travel in popular culture and science. Staggs then discusses five of the best known novels featuring time travel:

  1. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
  2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

He concludes:

In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.

RELENTLESSLY RELEVANT: The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

I’ve long thought that, with the possible exception of “The Turn of the Screw,” the works of Henry James shouldn’t be studied until graduate school. James’s insight into the human psyche is so subtly complex that only people with a lot of life experience can understand and appreciate it.

Paula Marantz Cohen, Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, uses the recent issuance of a stamp honoring Henry James by the U.S. Postal Service as a springboard for this article. Cohen sees James’s “dense and difficult” late writing — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all written between 1902 and 1904 — as a bridge from the Victorian era into modernity (the age of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and then, further, into our age of postmodernism:

His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, … and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

There is an indeterminacy with respect to truth that his later work supports in such an aggressive way that it becomes a worldview. Words, normally meant to communicate, are deployed more as obstacles to communication than as facilitators to it. The fragmented nature of his dialogue leaves meaning unresolved between characters (he describes them as continually “hanging fire”).

Cohen writes that James’s characters “were always trying to make the most out of situations and see the best in people through their imaginative flexibility — to salvage meaning to some positive, creative end.” However, she laments, in academia this process became subverted into giving truth “purely provisional meaning based on what the speaker wants to relay and the listener/reader wants to hear.” The result “betrays the ideals of [James’s] moral imagination. And yet his great later writing can be seen as its precursor.”

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown