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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On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”