It’s summertime and I’m in the mood for mysteries and thrillers. (What’s the correlations or causation?! between summer and mystery/thrillers? That my attention span is shorter because I’m whisked away by beach and dock and sun? Or that I want some mental candy to accompany the literal candy I seem to inhale between the may long weekend and labour day?). Anyway. I began a quest for mysteries and thrillers to read that weren’t terribly written. I’m not a librarian. Nor an avid user of things like Goodreads, so my quests usually begin (and end) with internet searches. (Apologies to my librarian readers; I really ought to have begun my search with you). Try typing in ‘literary mystery’ and you’re not going to find easily parsed results. Cue several weeks of ordering books from the library, schlepping over to pick them up, beginning the first chapter and throwing up my hands as I read (yet another) description of sandy blonde hair, or the pulsing sadness of the trees. Finally I found my way to a list of the Edgar Award winners, and then something about a Dagger winners. And while I know literary prize lists are often fraught, in this instance I was ready to turn to the list for guidance.
Happy days as it pointed me to Belinda Bauer’s Black Lands which was both well written and sufficiently plot-y to satisfy my summer craving. And it had a fascinating central character! Of course it wandered into serial killer-gratitious-violence territory that means this won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’re someone who can handle (or perhaps enjoy) this exploration then on you go. The novel takes a young boy, Steven, as its central focus: Steven’s uncle was killed by a serial killer when his uncle was Steven’s age (12? Something like that). Steven is fixated on finding his uncle’s body, as he thinks bringing this closure will ‘fix’ his family. The book is at its best in the rendering of family life – a heartbreaking mix of intergenerational trauma and poverty. When the novel strays to imagining the point of view of the serial killer, things get a little… less imaginative and interesting. I recognize the curiosity the author is exploring: what would be the consequences on later generations of such a traumatic event? but i’m not convinced that we needed the point of view of the killer in order to get this empathic exploration. Instead it felt a bit to me like Bauer wanted the gratitous and the racy and so offered up a thrilling (and sufficiently page-turning) climax that was much less believable (and so, consequential) than the character exploration rendered through Steven.
All this to say it’s a worthy ‘literary’ (in the sense of being well written, focused on theme and character as much as it is plot) mystery/thriller to bring along to the beach (or the cottage, or the subway, or the lunchroom at work – wherever you find yourself this summer). Unless the discomfort with (perhaps unnecessary) scenes of violence. Which I get. So… maybe more ambivalent than I started out. There you have it.