The Presence of Other Worlds

The title above is borrowed from a book I read many years ago — a biographer of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Interesting guy, Swedenborg. Drank 40 cups of coffee a day. Had visions. Founded a religion. But that’s not what I want to talk about today; I just borrowed the title.

In opening a novel to read it, one enters another world. That world may be very like the world we know, or it may be strikingly different, but in any event it’s another world. The first task of the fiction writer, then, and perhaps the most important task, is to imagine and then bring to life a world that readers will want to enter. If your newly minted world is a jumble, or boring, or unpleasant, only the most masochistic reader will slog on through to the end of the book. Most of us will put it down quickly.

I sometimes cruise the aisles of the mystery section of the local public library, looking for mystery authors whose work I haven’t read. I grab a couple of books by writers who have multiple titles on the shelves, bring them home, and crack them open.

I seldom find myself in a world where I would want to spend much time. A happy exception was the series about Inspector Montalbano, by Andrea Camilleri. Set in modern Sicily, they’re not great, but they’re pretty darn good.

A more typical experience was provided this week by Brought to Book by Anthea Fraser. It’s set in modern England (in a charming small town not too far from London — a charming small town, that’s the first red flag). The main character seems to be Rona Parish, a successful writer who is evidently destined to become an amateur sleuth.

Amateur sleuths are the norm in the “cozy” subgenre of the mystery genre. Amateur sleuths who are successful writers rather than, you know, somebody’s maiden aunt are not the most interesting characters, both because one suspects the author is showing a want of imagination and because writers are not really very interesting people, what with all the time they spend with their noses buried in a word processor. But whatever.

There has been, as usual, a suspicious or at least odd death, and the police seem not very interested in trying to discover foul play — again, a standard trope in the cozy subgenre. The cops are always well-meaning but inept. It will, I’m sure, be up to Ms. Parish to ferret out the evildoers.

She has been hired to write the biography of the dead guy — another famous writer, wouldn’t you know it? So she will have an excuse to trundle around and interview the suspects.

But that’s not the problem. Here’s the problem with cozies in general, and with Brought to Book in particular. After 20 pages, we have learned about Rona’s unusual living arrangement with her husband Max, and what he does for a living. (He’s an artist. A successful writer and a successful artist. Already this is feeling awfully shallow, isn’t it?) We’ve learned that Rona’s sister is divorced and is wary of her former husband. We’ve gone on a walk with Rona and her dog Gus in a public park, and watched Gus retrieve a ball that Rona threw. We’ve learned where Rona parks her car, and her cooking habits, and the kind of house she lives in, and the reconstruction she and her husband had done to the house after they bought it. There’s no onstage sex, but we’ve learned that Rona and her husband drink brandy before having sex, and listen to a CD (before or during, you’ll have to imagine that part).

This is the world into which Fraser has invited us. Time for the Shatner impression: It’s ped-ES-tri-an.

As to the nature of the crime (and of course it will turn out to be a crime), Fraser has revealed very little. The dead man was found floating face down in a pond, and that was six months ago. As an urgent predicament, this falls rather flat, but at least we can listen to a CD while drinking brandy.

Here, for your delectation, is the opening paragraph of Chapter Two:

Max left immediately after breakfast. When he’d gone, Rona went back upstairs and had a shower, after which she surveyed the contents of her wardrobe for several minutes before deciding on narrow brown trousers with matching jacket and a cream cashmere sweater. Smart but businesslike, she told herself.

Doesn’t that grab you by the short and curlies? Just for kicks, I took Ross MacDonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse down from my shelf. Here’s how Chapter Two starts:

He came back, though, wearing a purged expression which failed to tell me what had been purged, or who. I took the hand he offered me across my desk, but I went on disliking him.

This is not an especially striking paragraph, but the difference between MacDonald and Fraser is palpable. In MacDonald’s paragraph, something is happening. We have entered a world where unpleasant things are lurking just out of view. And we neither know nor care what private eye Lew Archer is wearing.

If you want people to read your novels, invite them into a world of intrigue, or exotic beauty, or bitter struggle. All three at once, if you can manage it. And no matter what you do, you must not have your lead character fretting over her wardrobe choices and deciding on a cream cashmere sweater. Just don’t.

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