Monday, May 13, 2013

What We Read Says a Lot

I have been reading mysteries since Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Mary Stewart (the first adult mystery writer I was allowed to read). Reading these and similar books eventually took precedence over swimming, which is probably why I always wish I weighed ten pounds less than I do.

Why mysteries?  The sense of discovery must have been important, and it seems to have gone beyond fiction. For many years I did evaluation work, mostly looking at government programs. Some skills needed for this work are similar to those of detectives—willingness to dig into information, asking probing questions, and writing reports (a regular activity of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone).

However, unless I was riding with one particular carpool mate there were no fast cars, and certainly no fancy hotels or gin and tonics at four o’clock.

As I write more I read less, so I have recommitted to reading at least one book per week, preferably two. I will do some skimming. When I’m not particularly engaged in a book I tend to try to follow the plot threads, with less attention on inner dialogue. This can mean I miss things and have to go back, but mostly not.

Almost any mystery appeals to me, though if sadistic criminal acts are a big part of the book I put it down.  Same reason I don’t watch Criminal Minds. Who needs to be reminded (for entertainment yet) that people are that sadistic?

The only other thing that truly turns me off are what I think of as “cheats.”  In Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree, the reader is in the mind of the protagonist (Mary Grey) throughout the book. When she travels from Canada to England to visit the ancestral home, she is often taken for Annabel, a cousin who disappeared eight years ago.  Annabel’s appearance would be a threat to others, as Annabel—if alive—would inherit a family fortune.

Mary Grey spends a great deal of time looking into Annabel’s background and denying that she is Annabel.  And then at the end of the book, lo and behold, Mary and Annabel are one and the same. What?! No claim of amnesia, just a basic deception that renders the novel (to me) ridiculous. If told from another person’s point of view, fine. But to be in first person and hide who you are from the reader? Doesn’t work. 

Only Mary Stewart could get away with it, and if was the first book of hers a person read it might be the last. I enjoyed many of the other books, particularly the environmental web she creates as you read.

I love the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries by Tana French. You stay in her world of intricate crimes and resolutions for days after you finish a book. Yet, dare I say it, there are times when the first-person narrator knows a great deal more than they let the reader know, especially in The Likeness.

Novels all in first person are a challenge. There is only so much the protagonist can know, and the reader has the intrigue and frustration of reasonable discovery. The sleuth cannot expound on clues or opinions to an admiring friend, as readers today don’t usually want to sit (or read) through a lecture.

No matter the limitations, I prefer books with only one or perhaps two points of view. When there are many—especially if one is the mind if the criminal—then a reader knows almost everything and it’s just a matter of when the good guys and bad guys will come together. And, as my father said when I was a scared eight-year old during TV shows, “You know the good guy will win. It’s his show.”

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