Mystery Surprise

I’ve never much liked mystery novels.  I get either helplessly confused by the third chapter (Smiley’s People) or impatient that no one else figured out early on that of course the wife did it (Presumed Innocent). In fourth and fifth grade, I collected Nancy Drews, mostly to try to understand the intriguing world of teenagers, for which Nancy’s life, with her little blue roadster and her boyfriend named Ned, did little to prepare me.

Tattered-jacketed copies of The Key to Rebecca and The Russia House sit on my bookshelf, as do biographies of the Romanovs and Winston Churchill.  Books I’ll keep (if probably never read) because they remind me of my dad, who loved a good thriller as well as historical biography.  I’ve loved reading Patrick McGrath’s Spider and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley more for their unreliable narrator and creepily precise characterizations and gorgeous writing, but I don’t consider either one a true mystery.  In both, we know who done it.  The thrill (as in Henry James’ Turn of the Screw) lies in watching just how, and why.

So I still feel a little surprised when I name Ruth Rendell (who also writes as Barbara Vine) and Donna Leon as two of my happiest reading discoveries in the past few years. I discovered Rendell while working as a production editor at Crown Publishing Group almost twenty years ago. Reading for pleasure rather than consistency of serial commas or proper placement of em-dashes was an occasional perk of the job.  With Rendell’s manuscript, every word sucked me in, and I couldn’t put it down.

I left Crown and didn’t pick up a mystery again until 2009 when, on vacation with friends, I saw Rendell’s name on the spine of a fat paperback on a bookshelf.  I picked up The Keys to the Street and have read fifteen of her books since.  Not a record-breaking number, but for me—who was absent the day they handed out the gene for tracking clues—a surprise.  Some of Rendell’s books can start to feel formulaic—the loner with a nervous tic, the yuppie arriviste couple, the plain Jane who gets taken in by the psychopathic charmer—but at her best, she’ll thrill you.  And not with “mystery” as much as through keen psychological insight and a dark sensibility about human nature.  In several of her books, no crime is committed, unless you broaden the definition beyond the legal.  If you haven’t read anything by her yet, try The Crocodile Bird or The Water’s Lovely or the aforementioned Keys to the Street.

Curious, perhaps, but loving Rendell has not had the effect of turning me to other mystery writers.  And then, a month ago,  a colleague at work loaned my husband Death and Judgment by Donna Leon.  Leon, an American who lives in Venice, has written a series of murder mysteries featuring Police Commissioner Guido Brunetti.  Having recently visited Venice, I had fun recognizing locations – hey, the bad guy lives one canal over from our hotel! – but I kept reading because I liked hanging out with Guido, his wife Paola (who seems always to be cooking), and their children, and because I grew more and more to admire Guido’s moral code.  He always finds the culprit, who—in the three I’ve read so far—turns out to be a well-connected group of powerful politicians, businesspeople, and Mafia.  Perhaps that’s why Leon doesn’t allow her books to be translated into Italian.

I read once that Jane Smiley wrote Duplicate Keys, a mystery, to teach herself about plot. I tried reading that one, too, and found it impenetrable.  If I learn something about craft from reading mysteries, great.  But for now, the surprise of discovery alone sends me to the library for the next one.

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2 Responses to Mystery Surprise

  1. I loved mysteries as a kid. I read a ton of Nancy Drew books, and I would find little books like “Five-minute mysteries” lying around our basement and devour them. And I still love thriller/mystery movies and TV shows. I love to try to figure out who dunnit and I’m pretty good at spotting the clues. But I don’t think I’ve ever read an adult mystery novel. Somehow I have this fear that if I read genre fiction, it will have a bad influence on my writing. (Have you ever experienced that?) I try to read mostly literary fiction (with some memoirs and social media books thrown in) because that’s how I want to write. Maybe someday I’ll be less insecure about my writing and start reading mysteries again. And I’ll have your blog to turn to for great recommendations!

    • It’s funny, but some “mysteries” have that word on their front flap for marketing purposes and could just as well be labeled “literary.” I’d put Rendell in that category. She’s a good writer–her attention to sentences, to language, to character nuance is as precise and impressive as that of many “literary” novelists. And one of my favorite writers cites Raymond Chandler as an important model of what to leave out. (For me, he’s one of those mystery writers whose books have me totally confused by page 20.) When I worry about bad influences, I worry more about lifting from the literary ones–such as while struggling with a plot turn in a novel, I introduced a bus accident, only to realize (months later, I’m embarrassed to say) that I’d borrowed from Russell Banks’ Sweet Hereafter … Oops.

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