In praise of…the mystery novelist

I recently finished the first two books in the Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock and Last Seen WearingI enjoyed the first—the second, not so much. Thinking about my very different reactions to these books got me to thinking about how mystery writers construct their stories. While every genre has its own particular challenges in addition to just creating a solid, interesting story, I feel for the mystery writer.

0427b07704c11bdd71fb2adedb14f4e2First, there’s the plot. To write a really good mystery, a writer has to construct a plausible crime. It has to make sense once a reader has gotten to the end and read the solution. But, it can’t be predictable (unless you’re writing a whydunit instead of a whodunit). Predictability is a killer. Plus, I’ve also noticed an escalation in crime plots since their early days in the mid-1800s. Writers have to out-do what’s come before in terms of deviousness, gore, or something more. All this would be hard enough if it weren’t the wrinkle that, once a reader knows the solution to the mystery, they’re not likely to re-read the book unless there’s more to the book than just the puzzle.

The first two Inspector Morse novels highlight these challenges. In both novels, the mysteries are fiendishly complicated. Because Morse creates wild theories based on very little evidence, one is left with multiple possible solutions. There’s enough evidence that it’s all just plausible enough. I like puzzles, but I was left a bit unsatisfied, especially with Last Seen Wearing. The endings didn’t quite work for me. There was too much of an effort at being clever.

Second, there’s the detective. A good detective can keep readers coming back for new instalments. The genre has seen the savant (Holmes), the world worn (Harry Hole, from Jo Nesbø), the disillusioned (Philip Marlowe, by Dashiell Hammet), the humorous (Stephanie Plum, by Janet Evanovich) and the pain in the ass (Inspector Morse, from Colin Dexter). But if the character swings too far into cliché, then readers are less likely to bond with the character and carry on with new novels. Because pacing is so important to mysteries, it must be tempting to rely on genre shorthand to build character—which leads straight into clichés. It’s a delicate balance between taking time to develop the character and keeping the reader turning the pages.

My biggest problem with these two books by Dexter is Morse himself. While I rather enjoyed being in his head as his brain made all sorts of outrageous leaps. I’ve never read any detective novel quite like it; Dexter was almost writing stream-of-consciousness at times. But, I was also privy to all of Morse’s lecherous thoughts about nearly every woman he encountered in the course of his investigations. The books were published in the 1970s, but I can’t excuse the sexism. I stayed for the solutions, but I don’t want to spend anymore in that head.

Even if these particular books didn’t thrill me, mysteries have been some of the most enjoyable books I’ve read. The little gears in my head whirl while I try to figure it out before the detective. There is so much to think about, especially when the author uses an unreliable narrator. They’re great mental palate cleansers after a heavy, literary read.

In praise of…achronological stories

From our perspective, time only goes on direction. Our brains are wired this way and it has influenced the way our stories are written. Most stories will be written with the beginning first, followed by the middle, and concluded with the end. Some fancy writers will start things in medias res, but cause still precedes effect. Very rarely, however, an author will write a story where things are told out of order, achronologically.

Kristen Fritsch

Without a linear progression of events, we are unmoored from our normal modes of understanding. Without time to organize causes and effects, we have to work harder to make sense of things by tracing the development of themes or sifting narrative layers to find an idea that links things together.

The first time I read an achronological (non-linear) novel, I hated it. It was Slaughterhouse-Five and I could not figure out what the story was trying to tell me. If you haven’t read it, Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of a man who does not experience his life chronologically. He jumps from point to point in his life and so must we. Looking back, I don’t think the book would have worked if its plot was chronological. I wouldn’t have taken it seriously enough; I probably would have considered it a weird bit of literary science fiction. It is a weird bit of literary science fiction, but there’s more to it than that.

I know not every reader likes the out-of-time experience of an achronological novel. They are difficult to get into. If an author is not very skilled at moving us back and forth through timelines, we get lost. In a good achronological novel, there will be a center around which events revolve. Without a center, things really will fall apart. Achronological novels, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins, will return to their center again and again, giving us more information each time so that we can mull over the book’s theme from different points of view.

If I was more clever, I would have worked out a way to play with the formatting of this post to make it parallel its subject. Since I can’t do that, I’ll simply say: Take a chance on an achronological book. You might be surprised at what you learn.

In praise of…depressing books

August Macke
August Macke

My book club tends to read a lot of depressing books. We don’t mean to choose them. It just happens when we look for books with emotional depth and honesty, good writing, and interesting characters. And so, every month, we swear that we’re going to pick something funny. (Next month is Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, so we might actually succeed this time.) During last night’s discussion, I wondered why we write and read depressing books. It can’t just be that some of us like to cry. I hate to cry.

I think I read depressing books is because they usually include emotional depth. The depths characters’ feel always inspire empathy in me. A significant portion of my work involves dealing with people. Sometimes the people I work with a frustrated, angry, confused, worried, or just not having a great day. Because I’ve worked in libraries for so long, it’s easy for me to forget that they can bewilder and irritate people. Reading a depressing book every now and then reminds me of what other people may be going through and I get a boost of empathy and compassion.

In thinking about depressing books, I exclude melodramatic books (because they lack honesty) or misery memoirs (too much agony). I prefer tragedies, where a character’s choices or flaws lead to their downfall. I know when I read melodramas or misery memoirs that there will be no happy ending. With a tragedy, I always feel a little flutter of hope that things won’t go wrong. Maybe that little feeling of hope that things will be all right in the end is another reason why I read depressing books. Weird.

In praise of…the bittersweet ending

I’ve been talking up Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members to every reader I’ve met since I finished the book over a week ago. Everyone I’ve talked to seemed interested…except one person. I was talking about the book’s humor and the protagonist’s love of literature and the exception was listening. But when the exception asked if the book had a happy ending, I paused. They did not take this as a good sign. The exception only likes happy endings.

USA. New York City. 1957. Woman reading on the subway.
USA. New York City. 1957. Woman reading on the subway.

I like bittersweet endings. I have ever since I read A Tale of Two Cities. Sydney Carton’s lines, just before he goes to his dead, still make me sniffle: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known” (Source). Bittersweet endings always strike me as the most perfect endings. In them, I often find justice, resolution, emotional depth, but with hope or the promise that life will go on to leaven the sadness.

Perhaps I don’t like happy endings because I don’t trust them. They don’t feel real to me most of the time because the characters didn’t have to earn their happiness. When I close the cover on a book with a bittersweet ending, I usually feel a sense of satisfied rightness that I don’t get with other books—even if I usually end up feeling gutted by the emotional toll.

Favorite books with bittersweet endings: