Honestly, I tried.
November – February is its own liturgical season at my house: the Unending Feast of St. Cadbury. We roll straight from Thanksgiving to a birthday, Christmas, two more birthdays, Valentine’s Day and yet another birthday. It’s a lot of parties, a lot of travel, a lot of cleanup, and a lot of chocolate.
Despite all that, I did my homework this past month, really I did! I valiantly struggled throughout the month of December to find a mystery for you. I just don’t have a review-worthy book to show for it.
Five different books looked to be right up my alley and came with great notices. Three of them were bestsellers in the genre. But I couldn’t make myself like any of them enough to finish, and I like you too much to do that to you.
One was an authentic 30’s book by a new-to-me author. I got half a chapter in, and it already felt like work. There was just nothing new, fun, intriguing, or charming going on. I wasn’t the least bit curious about what would happen next — and that’s the crux of any mystery, isn’t it? Curiosity.
The next was a contemporary author writing in a Jazz-Age setting. The story opened on the main character sitting through a tedious, obligatory visit with someone she disliked, thinking about how bored she was. She had no agenda for her visit except to be present. Two chapters in, nothing had happened yet. Perhaps the author was going for a Jane-Austen-style comedy of manners based on the complex network of protocol and unspoken formal behavior codes. She didn’t pull it off.
The third began with a very likeable main character and an interesting premise: an aristocrat down on her luck in the middle of the Great Depression, with the promise of comic hijinks and a hint of romance. I made it a bit further with that one, but the storytelling soon devolved into mundane and formulaic exaggerated character development, telegraphing setups for gags you could see a mile away. Sigh.
The fourth took me by surprise. It was a well-paced, lovingly constructed homage to Golden Age whodunnits, including witty banter between characters about how much they’re anticipating “the new Sayers book.” I got excited, thinking I’d found a soulmate. A whirlwind romance, two murders, and a family scandal showed up in quick succession, producing all kinds of attractive possibilities.
And then the story ground to a screeching halt. You see, the book was published by a small press that focuses on “Christian” stories for the “Christian” market. So, right in the middle of the main character’s grief, danger, budding love interest, and identity crisis, he sits down with a gal he just met to have a long theological discussion about free will, divine intent, human fallibility and sexual morality. Yep, there are two dead bodies in the house and the most urgent thing on these characters’ minds is to make sure the reader knows that God thinks cheating on your spouse is Bad.
I use the scare quotes because I have a real issue with the ghettoization of culture, the assumption that people of faith can’t cope with stories that include complex and realistic human behavior, or that the only way to process bad things happening is to preach a sermon about it. I also have a problem with stories that stop the narrative flow or create contrived situations to shoehorn in a speech or action that doesn’t belong there organically. I really don’t care whether the author is cramming in a sermon, a car chase, or a sex scene — I don’t want to read a checklist, I want to read a story!
My final attempt was set in a contemporary small town full of truly intriguing and complex characters, during Christmas preparation and celebrations. The craft was impeccable and the prose was exquisite — in fact, I turned to my husband in glee and said, “finally, a book that’s just a pleasure to read!”
The first act of the story developed the situation and relationships around a woman obviously destined to be a murder victim. She was despicable in every way, and everyone around her had ample motive to bear a grudge or even be driven to their breaking point by her schemes and manipulation. The contrast between the peaceful, idyllic town and the growing tension in the cast of characters was wonderfully effective.
But somewhere around Chapter Seven, the wheels started to come off. There were so many characters introduced, so much jumping from one point of view to the next, and such a complex network of backstory, competing loyalties, complex relationships, and hinted secrets, that I glazed over and lost track of who was who, or whose thoughts I was listening to. On top of that, the future victim had become so openly loathsome, twisted, and cruel to her child that I couldn’t enjoy the story any more. I read mysteries to relax and have fun. If I want to delve into horrors about the emotional abuse of children, there’s always newspapers and the Internet.
So, I had a Catch-22: it would be unfair to the author to name and bash a book I didn’t finish. And it would be unfair to me to white-knuckle through a book I disliked. I’m not doing this project to give bad reviews, but to recommend books I think you’ll enjoy!
Help me out, Dear Readers. What mystery have you read lately that really puzzled or excited you, that put a smile on your face?
Leave me a comment, shoot me an email, or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter with hashtag #AFewGoodMysteries.
Let’s find 12 amazing mysteries for 2017!