Tag Archives: Mystery

The Silent Wife: When a ‘Good’ Book is Determined by Its Success in Distraction

If you’ve ever found yourself confined to a space – think airplane, waiting room, pandemic hideout, room-room – you’re familiar with how important high quality fiction can be for taking you out of that space, even while you remain physically rooted. I find myself in the unique (for me) experience of spending a little over a week in a smallish room that takes me six small steps to walk across. In my initial packing for this trip my suitcase was almost entirely dedicated to thick and heavy mystery novels. When S. pointed out that I might rather some of the real estate be given over to snacks and clean clothes, I scoffed. Wasn’t he aware that a new novel was worth several days of sink laundered underwear? Well. He persuaded me to put all these books on my tablet and – for the week – suspend my hatred of reading on screens. It’s too soon to tell who was right, but having removed the books and filling it instead with a yoga mat, I am *still* washing underwear in my sink, and so we were both (probably) wrong #marriagehacks

Anyway. So far – three days in – I’ve read a book (and refreshed my news feeds about ten million times): The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison (which now I’m thinking her first name must be part of the mystery?). It was okay? I feel like my sense of what is good writing has been completely obscured by my assessment of whether or not the book is sufficiently distracting. In this case it did well enough in that I read it in a day. Otherwise it’s pretty bland: rich white woman kills her husband in order to remain rich. I think the book tries to be interesting by layering on the rich white lady’s own complex psychology, but mostly it reads like a glossy magazine where everyone drinks expensive wine and has more than one couch.

The effort to be interesting piques with the back and forth narration between ‘her’ and ‘him,’ I suppose an effort to show how the murder is really a miscommunication – like had they been able to have full and honest conversations with one another then he might not have left and she might not have killed him (it’s not a spoiler btw to say she kills him – as much comes out on the first few pages). And what a warning for all of us in relationships (and aren’t we all in some kind of relationship) of the perils of avoidance, denial, deception and on and on. Like it’s so easy to just be honest. Or like honesty never got anyone in trouble.

Anyway. I’d hardly recommend it, but I wouldn’t scoff if you said you were planning to read it. A perfectly acceptable book for captivating your interest if you are stuck somewhere. Which isn’t the high bar I’d usually set for a novel, but then, here we are.

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June 11, 2020 · 3:06 pm

Several Missed Attempts, then Louise Penny: How I read Now

Some libraries are reporting the genres most read during this Moment, and no surprise mysteries and romances (along with kids books) are coming out on top. Something about an escape? Or a tidy resolution? Or a distance from reality? Whatever the reason, it’s holding true for me, too.

I tried – resolutely – to read More Serious things. I read 200 pages of Alice Munro’s For the Love of a Good Woman before giving up because while it was excellent writing and masterful storytelling, it was also too far removed. I started to think ‘inconsequential,’ but that’s not it – Munro’s stories do the genius thing of taking the particular individual and demonstrating how absolutely consequential one person, one action, one choice can be. More that the collection was so gentle in its context: small towns where gossip and betrayal were/are the worst there is to imagine.

So I pivoted. I thought I’d try another pandemic, in another not-so-distant time: AIDS under Thatcher in Alan Hollinghurt’s 2004 Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty. Again I committed about 250 pages (which was only about half) to this read, continuing to hope that the protagonist, plot or context would become compelling but… no. Something to be said for how HIV/AIDS hangs in the background, unnamed for the first 250 pages I read, but lurking for the reader in the present. Something marginally interesting in the relationship between the protagonist and his host family (he rents a room in the mansion of a Conservative MP), but in the end, neither protagonist or plot did much to inspire concentration or interest.

One more attempt in the form of Isabelle Allende’s City of the Beasts and here I didn’t make it past page 10.

So I gave in/gave up/admitted that what I most wanted to read was Louise Penny. I picked up How the Light Gets In and I read it in a day. Turns out that when the genre is distracting and absorbing and distant, I can still read. Phew.

And I want to read because despite my distraction, reading is mindful activity for me. Forget the hundreds of apps encouraging meditation, or the articles espousing focus and deliberate engagement with media, for me all I’ve ever wanted and needed for mindful activity is a book. To be fair, lately I’ve had to be sure to put my phone in another room, and I’ve never been able to read on a tablet or laptop as the lure of the Internets is too much for me, even with a great book. But put a physical book in my hands and I can – at least with the Not So Serious but Seriously Enjoyable – take myself away in moments of focus and calm.

So yes. I expect you’ll be Judging Me for what I read this summer. I’m just going to read what feels good instead of what I think I should enjoy, and what I very much do enjoy in other times. And I’m okay with it. For now.

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery

The Devil’s Star: Norwegian murder mysteries FTW

Mum: FTW means “for the win.”

Everyone else: Struggling to read and concentrate? Yeah, me too. But not so with this super absorbing, super ridiculous murder mystery by Jo Nesbo. Having not read anything by them before, I didn’t realize I was dropping into book five of an established series, though I figured it out quickly (because I am So Smart) with references to past cases and dead partners, but WHATEVER, the narrative doesn’t at all depend on knowing these past instalments. I would say, though, that after I finished it and decided to read some more that I felt I knew a sufficient amount about our protagonist detective, Harry, that I didn’t want to read the first four novels, but would instead carry on with the series with book six. Which HAPPY DAY my library carries in electronic format. (Which SAD DAY means that reading on my screen equals I’m 6000x more likely to end up shopping on Amazon which is what I spend Way Too Much Time doing every day anyway.)

Anyway, on to the substance of the book. I don’t really know what to tell you without telling you important details. I guess it’s important to know that Harry is a super smart detective with a troubled past and personal struggles aka: the ideal and archetypal Man Detective. That the plot is twisty and turny enough to be surprising and fun, but not so twisty and turny that you can’t figure out what’s what and form some (obviously wrong) theories about what is happening. And while there is the requisite and troubling number of naked dead women, the book balances this out – a little? – by not making the murders super sexual and including a token male victim.

So anyway. Go ahead and enjoy a distracting read. I even stayed up to finish this one. Which would be more impressive if I wasn’t beset with insomnia of Epic Proportions, BUT WHATEVER.

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery

The Witch Elm: So. Slow.

Folks. Do not read The Witch Elm. Tana French is great and writes wonderful mystery novels that are giant and delightful, but this is not one of them. Though most review sites disagree with me, so I’m probably wrong or just irritable.

Toby, our protagonist, is super obnoxious. He’s entirely self-absorbed, petulant and unaware of how spoiled his is by everyone around him. He uses his girlfriend, Melissa, in ways that the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of, making her self-sacrifice some kind of example of how women are meant to be when their partners are down trodden. Melissa is cast against Toby’s cousin, Susanna, who is some Gorgon-like revenge-monster, making the alternative vision of femininity one of calculated destruction. Even while Susanna is a maternal figure, ending up with her husband because she couldn’t figure out another option, and mostly seeming bored by her children (a common trope when trying to be edgy and counter the helicopter parent).

I suppose the book is supposed to be about understanding who we are and what we are capable of when pressed by circumstance or when the culture around us doesn’t take our concerns and experiences seriously. There’s probably something meritorious in the exploration of that theme, but honest to god, the book PLODS through these questions, ever so slowly reeling out the circumstances of the murder, the connections among characters and their pasts, supposedly building suspense and adding character complexity, but really just irritating me as I didn’t see the point to long digressions about how much wine there was to be had. Which isn’t to say I want all books to be pot boilers. Honestly, I appreciated that Toby’s uncle was a genealogist, a cute way of getting the reader to think about how our inheritance, too, shapes who we think we are and what we think we should be like as people. There were other clever approaches to the thematic question, but they all kept getting blocked for me by how utterly boring the whole thing was. This question of are we born lucky. Do we control our fate. How are we constrained by gender and sexuality. What do we owe friendship and experience. How does memory contribute to our sense of self and identity. Such great questions. Just so… dull in execution.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Mystery, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner