When I was a kid, a friend of my parents gave me a whole box of well-read Agatha Christie paperbacks, and I consumed them all in a single summer. That was also the summer of the marathon kitchen table jigsaw puzzle—my mother loved them—but while I did contribute often to the puzzle effort, I spent most of my time reading. In those ninety or so days my love of mystery fiction was born.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of it, mostly because one of the authors I work with/for has been writing mysteries. So I’ve been taking a look at the various ways a mystery novel is structured, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler to Daphne du Maurier to Sue Grafton. I love a good puzzle.
There’s an art, I think, to writing a mystery that truly mystifies, and it bugs me when these novels are dismissed with the term genre fiction. Chandler wrote truly beautiful scenes and descriptions, lyrical similes, and is considered a master of dialogue, for example. You’ll miss out if you turn up your nose at the likes of James Lee Burke, who writes elegantly about serious political-sociological themes (check out The Tin Roof Blowdown for the definitive post-Katrina analysis of what went down in New Orleans). Or Tana French, an Irish author who is a master of characterization (try The Likeness) … or Louise Penny, who has, in her Chief Inspector Gamache (of the Sûreté du Québec) series, created a Canadian village so vivid that I want to move there. Or at least visit. (Begin with the first, Still Life. And bear with it; there are some editing quirks that make it a slow starter.) Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden are also richly layered mysteries that charm with period details. (I completely failed to see the ending coming in Riverton.)
The best part of a mystery, of course, is trying to puzzle it out (or simply watching it unfold). In Borkmann’s Point by Håkan Nesser, his detective protagonist tells us, “In every investigation … there comes a point beyond which we don’t really need any more information. When we reach that point, we already know enough to solve the case by means of nothing more than some decent thinking.” I think this is true for reading a mystery too … and possibly for life.
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