Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Mystery?

Over the last several months I’ve picked what looked like promising mystery novels from the wall-sized shelf of our local library. In this I’m trying to discover a genuine story-teller. One test is to look at the first page of the novel. If it begins by plunging me into a scene—action, dialogue—I slip it right back into the gap I created removing it. I’m looking for a story, not a third rate movie executed as print on paper. Once it looks like that a story might be told, I look for other indications that give me hope: set in old times, for example, set in China. How though it is to find something good is illustrated by the last three I chose, admittedly rather rapidly.

The first of these begins in 1204 AD or thereabouts, in Swabia. It concerns a community of circus performers hiding in the Black Forest from a evil persecution of some Pope. (Had I gleaned that much from my examination of the book, it wouldn’t have made it to the house, but, alas.) The first person story teller is a member of this community but sounds, in speech, surprisingly like an American from the Midwest. At around page four or thereabouts I come across a “guild hall” built amidst the dense pines of that very mountainous region; it features four “class rooms” in which the circus-arts are taught. Really? Class rooms don’t really come into their own until Napoleon or thereabouts. And guild halls, well, don’t really fit the notion of a fugitive community hiding in the Black Forest at the tail of a path camouflaged by a “movable bush.” Soon the story-teller’s wife (she is great with bow and arrow by the way!!) mentions a “live audience” — as if that era had had any other kind. And then my story-teller talks of “Europe,” a geographical conceptions not in the day-to-day lexicon of some itinerant juggler of the thirteenth century.

The second book, set in modern times, starts smartly with nice, quick portraits of three Brits; amusing, nicely done. But settling down I rapidly find myself bogged down in a ten page description of a little section of The City in London the purpose of which, I’m guessing, is to show that our American author really was in England with notebook and digital camera. By now, leafing, ahead, I discover that description is the bulk, the tedium relieved only here and there by encountering the occasional charismatic ghost.

The last is a “Templar Mystery.” It kicks off with a low, turreted wall collapsing and killing a knight in armor. The description of this collapse, the listing of the materials present in the rubble, persuades me that the author knew naught about how walls like that were made. In the second segment we meet a young, vile sort of friar; he is just a brother, mind, but already the diplomatic go-between the king of England and the Pope. The third short segment already has us enjoying an obligatory sex scene between a female peasant I can’t actually believe in and a peasant hunk I fear might play a leading role in all that follows. Sigh. It’s a very hot and humid summer. I’m losing my touch even in sampling mystery novels in this age of the image. The mystery of all this? The mystery is that any of these books would actually have been published.


  1. I think I may have the misfortune to read the Templar mystery one, as well -- although I wouldn't be surprised if there are dozens of such novels currently floating around, all with almost exactly the same plot. The real curse of the Dan Brown novels is the flood of books not written by Dan Brown but trying to get the same success with the same bag of tricks. The potential marketing, not the writing, determines the selection.

    One thing I have noticed is that I come across a lot of books that could have been good short stories, but were needlessly expanded into fairly bad books. I suppose the market for short stories is not especially favorable to short story writers; there are a number of writers, like Stephen King or Orson Scott Card, whose talents would be far and away better served writing short stories (at which they are consistently good), who write novels because that's the only way they can make a living writing.

  2. Oh, I do wish I could provide you with a couple of good mystery novel suggestions. But, I haven't any right now.