Mysteries are so hard to review - I mean, what's the by what metric do you gauge them? Surprise? Overall dramatic tension? Writing Style? I'm not even sure myself, but I really liked Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone
, it had a very different mode than the classical detective tale à la
Agatha Christie et. al. In fact, it's not much of a detective tale at all. There's a detective, rather briefly, but he retires and gives the case up to pamper his rose garden.
There's a tangible appreciation for art and craft in this novel, which I want to touch on briefly. Betteredge has a profound adoration of the novel Robinson Crusoe
and uses it as an ersatz Bible: a literal apotheosis of Literature. This is, afterall, a very literary mystery novel, one which has post-modern tricks and unreliable narrators and artifact-as-narrative component, etc. Betteredge's reverance for Defoe operates to subordinate the role of religion but not to destroy it - religious destruction brings one's own demise, as in the case of the stolen gemstone from the Hindu temple. Another instance is Sergeant Cuff, and his curious affection for roses: an affection which I took as a sort of surrogate for the novelist's love of literature:
I began my life among them in my father's nursery garden, and I shall end my life among them, if I can. Yes. One of these days (please God) I shall retire from catching thieves, and try my hand at growing roses.
Like Cuff's relationships with roses, a novelist, or any artist, begins life among his art, begins life as an admirer of art, of books, of paintings, of music, and in his age that appreciation boils inside him or her as an artist impulse. Cuff is torn between the art of mystery and the art of beauty, and that is the same tension which pervades the novel overall. While the story is clearly a mystery, its form defies the tradition of genre fiction (in the sense that one considers "genre fiction" to be a simplistic narrative, mortgaging style to buttress plot). The story is broken down into a series of first-hand accounts, all unreliable, all contradicting each other, but ultimately leading to the thief by a thin strand of truth.
I'm a sucker for unreliable narrators. They unlock the imagination, and make you question "is that what really happened?" and really we are all unreliable narrators. Who doesn't embellish their anecdotes for dramatic or humorous effect? It is likely universally done, but we hardly hold it against anyone. Unreliable narrators in fiction are so interesting because we get to be the detectives ourselves. While The Moonstone
is a crime story, a detective story, the real mystery is the particular motives of our many narrators: why do they tell us what they do? what do they conceal, and why? What is their motive, what do they hope to gain (or not lose)? In my youth I was very much attracted to mystery novels, and couldn't remember half the titles or authors if I wracked my brain for weeks. My mother is a voracious reader of the mass-market mystery paperback: Cromwell, Patterson, Higgins Clark, etc. We have about seven packed bookshelves of these mysteries, which she reads and re-reads (the benefits of aging and fading memory, I suppose: re-reading mysteries!) - we also have a few bookshelves of my dad's German chemistry books, some business theory books, a handfull of classic paperbacks (1944 edition of Wuthering Heights
, two copies of The Odyssey
(Fitzgerald, Fagles), a collection of D.H. Lawrence's Short Stories, two copies of Moby-Dick
(why?), etc.), and my abandoned bookshelf in my abandoned childhood room with paperbacks of Ayn Rand, some school books on writing and on finance, and some beloved comic books. Reading is a passion, and those with the passion must have some love for mystery, I think.
What makes us read on? I suspect it is some mystery, though I would not
say it is suspense, which is a sort of specialized mystery. Sure, the mysteries in Christie or in my mother's beloved collection are very much in the foreground, they are murders or thefts, kidnappings or conspiracies: mysteries in the very classical sense. But I believe every book worth reading is a mystery at heart, if the reader is a curious and engaged participant in literature. From "Who is John Galt?"
to "Who is Leopold Bloom?" - we are constantly confronted with the mystery of character, of motivation, of desire. And deeper than that, there are larger questions confronted by literature, questions which diminish characters to puppets on the stage: Death - life - love - hate, what do these concepts mean to us? what do we believe about them? You cannot touch love, you cannot look at it under a microscope, and to examine it in our own lives is to make us the unreliable yarn-spinners of our own narratives. Books, literature, are the best microscopes we have for life's manifold mysteries. Like in The Moonstone
, every book is the unreliable narration of life's eternal enigmas, full of smokescreens and lies, mistakes in memory, but ultimately the compounding of perspectives begins to reveal to the reader something with a shimmer of truth beneath the earth of evasion.