Of all the seafood I detest, red herrings would be the worst! Yes, I know that “red herrings” are a literary device used by mystery writers, but on the page or on the plate, I’m not interested!
Mr. Gray is routinely buried in a mystery novel, and routinely tries to tempt me to read the genre with him. I’ve tried. From Gillian Flynn to Agatha Christie to Faye Kellerman I’ve been a good sport – not just for him, but for the two book clubs I’m part of. I finally admitted defeat and confessed that I just don’t like mysteries.
Reading a mystery convinces me that I have Alzheimer’s. I find myself re-reading passages because I’m convinced that some detail that has slipped my mind is key to the truth. I am frustrated by the various false clues (red herrings) I struggle to remember that have nothing to do with the storyline.
I like my characters fully drawn, not roughly sketched and I’m completely content to read a novel rich in the small happenings of life where very little happens, but at the end you feel as if you have spent time with a real person. I like to understand what makes people tick.
It’s not just books. I’m valiantly listening to “Serial”, the NPR phenomenon on the recommendation of my children. With all the stopping and re-listening I’m doing, the 15-year old case has nothing on me.
I become so invested in characters in the novels I read, that closing the book sometimes feels like saying goodbye to a friend. I was delighted to attend a reading by Sara Gruen, the author of “Water for Elephants” and she tearfully admitted that she missed “Rosie”, the star elephant of the novel “Aen”, I whispered.
By MARK GRAY
While I share my wife’s love for character-driven fiction (Anne Tyler, Steward O’Nan) I won’t conceal my glee in reading a traditional mystery novel.
Too often today’s “thriller” novels are based on a step-by-step psychotic violence. The “real” mysteries – the “whodunit”, the “howdunit”, or the “whydunit” – are my favorite literary genres because they place the reader in the spine of the book.
From the bestselling author of the past 20 years (Agatha Christie) to the recent chart-topping “Gone Girl,” readers become a partner with the author. It’s a simple partnership: the writer’s job is to present a puzzle and sprinkle various veiled clues; the reader’s task is to examine the evidence and attempt to solve the puzzle in the same way the author does. Of course, the reader usually fails in a well-written mystery. If the novel is successfully written, the reader will say “Gee, I should have figured that out all along.”
When I read a mystery, I share an adventure with the author. The deal is that I must pay attention and the author must play fair with me in explaining the “great reveal”. The masters of the whodunit mystery novels (Christie, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Arthur Conon Doyle, Rex Stout, etc.) understood that plot were slightly more important than characters (although their detectives were carefully drawn).
And I enjoy a puzzle – especially if it is sensible, believable, and solvable. (EXAMPLE: A soon-to-be murder victim receives a type-written letter reading “Come see me on plaza, 10 p.m.”) All eight of the novel’s suspects have typewriters. Which one was the killer? To solve it, re-read the ungrammatical writing of the letter. If you or I were writing it, we would say “Come see me on the plaza at 10 p.m.” Therefore, the killer has a typewriter that doesn’t have a working “t” key, so the killer has to improvise with stilted language.
Oh, and there is another aspect which makes a mystery satisfying: the bad guy always gets caught in the end!