Yesterday I prowled the Mystery section of the local public library, in search of a new author. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries over the years, both classic pulp paperbacks and fat books by johnny-come-latelies. We all have our tasted in mysteries. I don’t care for heavy suspense or oodles of gore, and I find detectives’ sexual exploits tedious — but I do like a good story.
I picked up four books, choosing authors who had a number on the shelf (if you find a good author, you don’t want to just read one book, although I’ve read a couple of great mysteries by authors who only wrote one or two). When I got home, I started with The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. After 35 pages, there’s not a trace of a hint of a crime, nor even anything odd and inexplicable. The viewpoint character is a woman in Edinburgh, Scotland, who owns a quarterly academic journal on ethics. Her boyfriend is a bassoonist. She has a maid who believes in spirit visitations. Yawn. Next.
Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know was heavily padded with 30-year-old flashbacks, which I skimmed, but there was a genuine mystery. The characterization was good, and the ending was satisfying. In retrospect the mystery angle seems quite forced; it only existed because a key character was stubbornly lying about her identity, and at the end I still didn’t understand why she was lying.
Having enjoyed that one, I tried Lippman’s Another Thing to Fall. Again, the writing is engaging — but for more than a hundred pages (in a 300-page book) there’s no mystery in sight. We catch glimpses of a stalker, or someone who is behaving rather like a stalker, but we don’t know who he is or what he’s up to. (Alfred Hitchcock recommended against this technique, by the way. The suspense, he proposed, is greater when the audience does know what’s going on.) Then, abruptly, there’s a brutal murder. And as in What the Dead Know, the ending is rather unsatisfying if you stop to think about it. Lippman is a good writer, but not a great mystery writer.
The next morning I had a go at The Buzzard Table, by Margaret Maron. After a brief suspenseful opening, which is evidently a teaser, we’re plunged into the world — well, really, into the extended family — of Deborah Knott. Unless I mis-read (and I’m not going to skim back through to check), Knott is a district court judge. Evidently in a rural area. In the course of the first 25 pages we’re inundated with fragments of family back-story. Among the people mentioned, most of them very briefly, are Read the rest of this entry »