The Way of the Word

8. February 2010

Mystery-ous Ways

Filed under: Commentary,review,writing — jensaltmann @ 10:18
Tags: , , , , , ,

I won’t name the novel or the writer that inspired today’s post. I didn’t finish reading the novel, so I don’t think it’s my place to write a proper review.

Let me just say that the novel is by a popular writer in the mystery genre. It’s a mystery novel. According to the sticker on the book cover, it’s a bestseller.

So why did I not like it? Why did I put it down and stop reading at about the halfway point?

It’s not that I don’t like the novel’s approach. It’s a bit reminiscent of Agatha Chrisie, and I like the Queen of Crime’s work. In this novel, there are a handful of suspects (plus the victim) in a remote, inaccessible place. Nobody could get in or out without a major effort. (The investigating police officers are helicoptered in.) It’s therefore obvious that the killer has to be part of a small group of people.

The novel clocks in at not quite 500 pages. The writer spends the first hundred or so introducing the characters. It’s obvious almost right away who the victim will be: it is of course the one person who is hated by everyone else. The writer takes her time to show the relationship of the victim-to-be with the various other people in the remote place. Then the backstory is wrapped up, the police arrive, and the story begins.

It sometimes happens that I start to read a novel, and then put it aside, and whenever I think of picking it up again, I find reasons not to. It usually takes a few days until I realize that I simply don’t want to read the novel. That happened with this one. Now, as I said, I had no problem with the approach. I actually like this kind of mystery. Usually. The writing style was a bit old-fashioned, but okay. I did, however, at about 200 pages in, start to pay more attention to what could have been edited out.

When I decided to give up on this novel, I peeked ahead to see if I had correctly deduced the killer from the clues planted in the first 100 pages. To my surprise, I was wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t always get it right. But… The novel had some fringe characters. You know the type. They are in the background, completely unimportant to the plot, their only purpose being to provide a bit of local color.

Perhaps the writer thought she was being original by making one of these fringe characters the killer. One of those characters who are mentioned once or twice, given perhaps one line of dialog, and then vanish into the background.

Knowing this changed the game completely. Because it meant that the first 100 pages of this novel hadn’t set up the crime, they hadn’t laid subtle clues for the reader to detect the killer… The real purpose of those first 100 pages had been to set up the red herrings. Everybody except for the character who turned out to be the killer had been given a motive for killing the victim.

From where I sit, this could be made to work — if the writer had just dropped those first 100 pages. If the detectives had found out all of the red herrings in the course of their investigation. While I’m sure that the next 250 pages would have provided all the clues needed to reveal the actual killer, I felt more than just annoyed at having wasted my time on reading 100 pages of, essentially, filler. When I realized that, I understood why the novel had bored me. Even if I had not consciously noticed, a part of me had felt that the novel was being padded, as if a required word count had to be met. This novel is one example for something that would have been much stronger and more enjoyable at half its length. As it was, it overstayed its welcome, and I felt… well, kind of cheated. Tricked.

There is a truism about writing that says, “start the story as early as you have to and as late as you can.” That truism is broken here. This story would have been stronger if it had started with the arrival of the police, after the murder had already been committed.

The writer in question is rather famous in her genre. After this experience however, I don’t think I’ll read her work again.

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