Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Ruining the Mystery Genre For You

This week, I found my self giggling over this great take down of the mystery genre from The Millions (I particularly enjoyed the line, "Perhaps I don't tell you enough that you're stupid, Watson.").

As much as this makes me laugh, it tends to be right on the money. I can't help but feel that most of the time when I read a mystery, I am profoundly let down by the ending. The book can be trucking along quite nicely for most of the book and then it totally loses my goodwill in the last 10% of the story. This is an inevitable liability of the genre - the ending matters as much as the rest of the story. In most genres, even if the ending is a little weak, people can be pretty forgiving of the overall work (Suzanne Collins, I am looking you dead in the eye). But in a mystery, if the author doesn't nail the landing, they've kind of ruined the whole book.

See, in a mystery, the author has to persuade the reader to suspend their disbelief twice. In every other genre, the author needs to overcome any initial resistence that a reader may have to the story's premise, characters, plot, etc. in the first 50 or so pages. At that point, the "disbelief quotient" should go down considerably:

Usually, as the reader is immersed in the story, their disbelief quotient remains low. It may spike at the end depending on the ending (and the mere fact that they are pulled out of the story as they realize it's ending), but generally, the reader should be pretty well "bought into" what the author is doing after about 50 pages.

With mysteries, however, as soon as the reader realizes that the solution is forthcoming, their guard goes back up. They think, "Hmm, okay, so how is this all going to come together, Mr. Author?":

Even if the story is pulled off well, I find myself outside of the story, analyzing the effect of the denouement on my satisfaction level. My ultimate enjoyment of the book is driven as much by the outcomes of that evaluation as by the journey to get to the ending.

Two books I've read recently highlight this point: Dominance by Will Lavender and In the Woods by Tana French. In Dominance, we have a mystery with a set up that is tantamount to catnip for me- 1) a serial murder mystery 2) set on a college campus 3) with flashbacks 4) that revolves around literary theory to unlock the clues. Is there a book I was predisposed to like more? I think not. Plus, this was no hack writer. The prose was solid (not beautiful, but well executed and much better than a lot of books it gets shelved with) and he set up a nice little mystery for the characters to unravel.

The problem that this book encounters is twofold: first, there is a really contrived and frustrating structure. We cut back and forth between the past and present every chapter. When an author is this slow in telling me the backstory, I figure that we are heading for either amazingness or complete disaster. Either all this foot dragging is going to pay off in an orgasmic fit of reading delight... or more likely, I'm going to resent the fact that the author made me work so hard for so little payoff. And I'm going to assume that the only reason they set it up this way is that they didn't have enough narrative suspense "meat" to be able to tell things linearly. It feels like they've taken 2 novellas about different times in the characters' lives and mixed them together to hid their individual weakness. Alas, this rarely works and, alas again, this does not work in Dominance. It just doesn't feel like a strong enough pay off to put up with the herky-jerky structure.

Secondly, the mystery is solved with a solution straight out of The Millons' parody. It uses a device I particularly loath in the genre and it just made me mad I had invested time in the characters.

In the Woods left me with the exact opposite impression. This is another book I was destined to love since it was 1) a possible serial murder mystery 2) set in Ireland 3) with flashbacks and 4) with freaking gorgeous prose. I don't want to go into details too much because I really want people to read this book and there's nothing worse than spoilers for a mystery. Suffice it to say that it handles all of it's narrative challenges flawlessly (though I did call the ending) and it maintains reader good will through the crests and dips of the disbelief quotient. It does this by creating a set of believable and well-rounded characters, as well as solution that is unusual and satisfying in an atypical kind of way.

What are your peeves in the mystery genre? Is there a book that you think handles the disbelief quotient well?

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