When Charles Dickens dropped dead on 9 June 1850, he was hard at work on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Readers who had already devoured the first three instalments of the story were left to solve its central mystery without the author’s help. On the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, Frances Wilson looks back on his final months. What lay behind Dickens’s turn to crime fiction? What were the real-life inspirations for this new novel? And, most importantly, who killed Edwin Drood?
“A college class weathering the pandemic finds Dostoyevsky’s savage inwardness and apocalyptic feverishness uncomfortably resonant.”
This is a fascinating account of David Denby’s experience of enrolling in the course Literary Humanities at Columbia University in New York City at the age of 76, then having the class moved online with the onset of COVID-19. Read how the pandemic-induced isolation affected students’ reactions to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Denby, a Columbia graduate, first took this course as an undergraduate at the university. He enrolled in the course again at age 48 to re-examine the “great books” that traditionally have made up the Western literary canon but more recently have come under fire as too limited to represent world culture. The result of that experience was his 1996 book The Great Books.
This current article recounts his third time through the same two-semester course, begun in fall 2019.
Don’t let that dull and formal-sounding title scare you off. Now that we’re beginning to have hope that libraries will be able to reopen, this report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) offers encouraging news—or, as it describes itself, “science-based information designed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to staff and visitors who are engaging in the delivery or use of museum, library, and archival services.”
To sum up: “Results show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not detectable on the materials after three days of quarantine.”
You should take a look at the report yourself to find out exactly what materials they tested and what procedures they used.
“Sheltering in place doesn’t mean you can’t go visiting. You can drop in on fictional characters trapped in isolated houses in out-of-the-way places. No social distancing is required, and you’ll sympathize when they feel the walls closing in.”
Carol Memmott, a writer from Austin, Texas, describes five mysteries, some of which are variations on the traditional locked-room mystery.
Because I’m very openly against censorship, I approached this article with interest. Nancy Snyder here asks, “Have you ever considered what lies beneath the vitriolic fury within the parents screaming at the school board meetings in favor of banning children’s and YA books?”
I ended up quite disappointed in this article because it didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Here’s the conclusion:
For anyone who respects the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas, book banning is an exercise in repression and ignorance. Removing controversial content does nothing but have the young reader want to read the book that has been banned from them. Too often, these banned book titles are the exact books young people need to read: banned books are effective in helping children develop their own values and moral convictions.
Like many of us, Sarah Weinman initially thought that the coronavirus lockdown would allow her to read, read, read. And also like many of us, she soon discovered that “Focus has evaporated. The cognitive load of living through the coronavirus has gone straight for my literary jugular.”
Her antidote for this condition has been a return to “much-loved classic crime fiction.” With the help of audiobooks, Weinman has enjoyed books by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Margaret Millar.
Here’s an article you might want to bookmark for reading after we emerge from the current coronavirus lockdown. The article deals with how modern technology is causing us to lose the ability for “deep literacy” or “deep reading”:
In her 2018 book, Reader, Come Home, [Maryanne] Wolf uses cognitive neuroscience and developmental psycholinguistics to study the reading brain and literacy development, and in doing so, helps identify what is being lost. According to Wolf, we are losing what she calls “deep literacy” or “deep reading.” This does not include decoding written symbols, writing one’s name, or making lists. Deep literacy is what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text. The result, with any luck, is a fusion of writer and reader, with the potential to bear original insight
The loss of this ability may be crucial for future human development because “Deep reading has in large part informed our development as humans, in ways both physiological and cultural.”
With its emphasis on brain evolution, this article goes well beyond the common laments on how technology is making us stupid.
This is a long and complex piece, the kind of thing that I’m having difficulty focusing on enough to comprehend and to, well, think deeply about. So I have put it away to look at again in the future.
Molly Creeden writes in the Los Angeles Times, “the unusual circumstances of being cloistered at home have proved a welcome change of pace, if not wholly enjoyable. And while no one is happy about the reasons we find ourselves in this abbreviated style of living, those well-suited to it are thriving.”
Read some of the explanations by people who appreciate the changes the current situation has brought to their lives and who hope to carry over some of those changes when the isolation restrictions ease.
Craig Robertson writes, “I’m not a big fan of tartan noir as a label for Scottish crime fiction. It works as an advertising slogan but doesn’t capture what the broad church of Scottish crime fiction is all about. There are so many fine novels within the canon that are either not tartan – with the archaic and cliched connotations that word can offer – or aren’t noir.”
Here he offers a list of novels that “fit into a tradition of Scottish crime novels driven by issues of duality, redemption, the nature of good and evil, and a dark, dark, humour” by authors including William McIlvanney, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid.
Ariel Levy writes in The New Yorker about author Lionel Shriver, “Shriver has often been convinced that we are freaking out about the wrong things—focussing on climate change, for instance, instead of contemplating the population explosion that fuels it. The coronavirus, she believes, will ultimately prove less destructive than the international fiscal contraction that it has provoked.”
Shriver’s breakout novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, featured a mother facing the fact that her son had committed mass murder at school. Levy writes, “her novels tend to explore almost perversely unappealing issues.”
At a time when female “others”—black, brown, and yellow—together constitute the largest block of the world’s population, their persistent invisibility to Westerners not only means they are overlooked in the present moment, but that they are consistently erased from the historical record.
Rafia Zakaria reacts against “the challenges that arise from a Western literary canon that, despite decades of feminist intervention, remains largely male and white” with a look at key texts that have helped her in her “own self-fashioning as a lettered woman of color.” In her series Reading Other Women in Boston Review she undertakes “a journey into complexity, into the lives and literary worlds of those who are challenging their own marginalization through the power of the story.” While “little brown girls” must undertake such a reading journey out of necessity, Zakaria hopes that the “Western reader must choose to do it.”
Claire Fuller, whose novels include Swimming Lessons, discusses the frequent presence of characters she calls watchers in crime fiction, “ staring via two-way mirrors, spying through surveillance cameras, peeping from behind trees, and peering through train and car windows” at other characters. But, she adds, we as readers are staring at the watchers just as those watchers are looking at other people. “Does that make us in some way complicit in the crimes committed between these pages?” Fuller asks.
be careful who you’re judging when you’re horrified by a fictional watcher or voyeur, and remember that readers—you included—could be considered guilty of the same crime.
These writers are embracing a more elastic literary form — the novel — and a number of recent works, often genre-bending as well as gender-bending, have won critical acclaim.
In The New York Times Peter Haldeman discusses recent works of literature that, “[I]n a field previously dominated by memoir and genre fiction (sci-fi, young adult), [includes] a number of first novels with more purely literary designs — including playing with genre — [that] are getting attention.” The works discussed here include the following:
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Little Fish by Casey Plett
The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara
Read how these authors are bending and blending literary types and genres to create new forms to portray new narratives of being.
Halloween was last week, but I’m still coming across interesting articles about all the usual trappings of that holiday. Here Sarah Perry explains why “[t]o understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel.” Perry explains how the term gothic, originally applied to architecture, came to be applied to literature that “repels and appeals in equally fervent measure.”
I make no secret of the fact that I like mysteries, and I read a lot of them. So I enjoyed this journey down memory lane by John Wilson (who is just my age) of his own love of and history with reading mysteries. There’s a bit of a Christian-theology overtone in his account that I do not share, but he seems just as fascinated with the ways mysteries probe the human condition as I am.
Abby Hargreaves talks about Novelist, a database that librarians use to recommend books to patrons. This database, which may be available to you through your local library’s web site, is especially good for finding recommendations on what to read next if you liked a particular book and would like to read more similar to it.
While NoveList only organizes fiction, there’s a companion database called NoveList Plus that includes nonfiction, too.
Because I love thrillers, I read a lot of descriptions of books in that genre. Here, thriller novelist David Bell explains why some many of those descriptions contain two elements: families and secrets.
It’s true that we thriller writers often exaggerate the problems and secrets that families deal with. Most families don’t experience murder, kidnapping, extortion, disappearance. (Some do, of course.) But so many times those wild, exaggerated crimes that occur in a thriller start with something small. Something ordinary. A secret kept. A promise broken. The smallest splash becomes a tidal wave.
And he offers a possible explanation of why readers love thrillers so much: “When they see the disasters that happen to fictional characters on a page, they feel relieved.” No matter how messed up our own family members might be, most of them are nowhere near as bad as the characters that inhabit the latest best seller.
I’ve always insisted that listening to an audiobook “counts” as having read the book as long as you listen to the unabridged version. But in this piece author Betsy Robinson argues differently: “ audiobooks and books are as different as movies and books.”
A former playwright now turned novelist, Robinson believes that audio productions minimize “the value of the direct relationship between books and readers.” I agree with her analysis of the reading process, called reader-response theory or transactional reading, and I therefore agree with her in the case of people who fall asleep while listening or are “missing whole paragraphs when one of the kids spills his Cheerios.” Since I no longer have a child whose eating requires monitoring, I’m seldom distracted in that way. But if I do miss a chunk of the recording, I back track until I get back to something I remember, then relisten.
And for that reason, I will continue to include unabridged audiobooks in my yearly count of books read.
Here’s something we classics major have always known:
There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life.
One of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The novel contains a school shooting, which most people assume was based on the 1999 high school shooting in Littleton, CO. Russo explains that he finished the book’s manuscript before the Colorado shooting and that, in fact, the fictional incident was based on a shooting in Paducah, KY, that occurred in 1997.
But, Russo continues, which event formed the basis for the novel’s plot is not important. Once such an event has occurred, it’s nearly impossible for writers NOT to incorporate it into their work:
as I wrote and revised the novel, . . [e]ach day became an exercise in magical thinking: If I could face the worst of my fears on the page, maybe I’d be spared in real life. I didn’t want to write the story, but how could I not?
Because, Russo writes:
And yet it’s novels we turn to for a deeper understanding of life than we get from politicians and others with ideological axes to grind, which is why some other novelist (probably thinking, How can I not?) is no doubt at work on a book that centers on a school shooting. Every day she sets about her horrifying task, trying to imagine, What if one of the dead kids in Parkland was mine? Could I go on? What would my mission in life become after life as I knew it ceased to exist? Questions like these drive novelists, not because we have answers, but because we don’t. All we have is moral imagination, which, over time, can help heal wounds but also has a nasty habit of opening them, as my novel did and continues to do.
That novelist currently writing is in an even more anxiety-ridden spot that he was because “such tragedies have become commonplace.” And also because:
As a nation, we have not decided that our children are more important than our guns, and any new novel on the subject will have to address that tectonic shift. We’ve changed. Our nation has changed.
Writing about all this, as Russo does here, is an act of tremendous bravery for which he deserves our gratitude.
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.
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.
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.
“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:
You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
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.”