Fellow GAD blogger Noah Stewart has in the past talked about intertextuality in detective fiction, part of which is how each mystery’s solution feeds into a general awareness of all other mysteries and their solutions. Essentially, reading detective fiction is then a game: has the author been able to mislead you about the solution? And the more you read, the harder this game becomes for these authors, especially as many of them wrote their books close to a century ago and so don’t really get the right of response where later developments in the field are concerned. The best GAD plots stand up to all subsequent attempts to innovate, and remain surprising.
Inside of this game you also play a meta-game, wherein the author may want you to believe you have spotted the solution so as to better surprise you come the end, and you the reader must decide whether this meta-game is being played…while also not believing that it is being played so that the surprise is genuinely surprising. Round and round and round we go, where we stop nobody knows. Some of the most accomplished GAD novels play this cannily by having revelations up their sleeves to reveal just as the astute reader is beginning to lose patience — witness The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen for the perfect utilisation of the “Aha, nope!” reveal multiple times to stanch readerly smugness.
Alas, when this fails, it tends to fail hard. Occasionally — as, say, with my experience of Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand — there is simply too little to sustain the illusion of misdirection, and the solution screams at you simply due to the presentation of the single idea around which everything orbits. And sometimes, as with The Owner Lies Dead, there are simply so many ideas that have to come together in a way that makes sense that there’s only one possible way it could unfold, and the illusion of misdirection is further hindered by what we’ll call clues being rammed so hard down the reader’s neck that even a sword-swallower’s gag reflex would be stimulated.
A recent discussion on this blog about the reading of GAD authors’ works in order raised the commonly-made point that an author’s debut is rarely their best work, and this bears that out simply for how interminably long it makes you wonder what sort of game Perry is playing. The interpretation that someone of even moderate intelligence would put on certain events lays unacknowledged for a loooong time before being brought up as if surprsing to the reader: the kind of narrative where we know Person A has a gun and is looking to shoot Person B, and then when Person C gets shot it takes a solid 50 pages for someone to go “Hey! You don’t think Person A is responsible for this, do you?!”. In this regard it does feel more than a little algorithmically plotted where the mystery is concerned, with large swathes of slow reveals and excruciatingly dull conversations between revelations, very much the work of someone who doesn’t quite grasp that their readers will probably have encountered a mystery on the page before.
But, in fairness, away from the mystery it is very well written indeed. The wonderfully atmospheric opening chapter lays out the impossible shooting of a man in a burning coal mine when everyone else in there is dead, and we then skip back some 20-odd years for about 40 pages of Mark Twainian youthful Americana, which was not even slightly what I had been expecting but nevertheless turns out to be rather wonderful. When we eventually catch up to that opening chapter, however, it then takes a frickin’ age for events we already know about to be covered, and the fact that some thoroughly unmystifiying mysteries are stirred in — gee, I wonder who could’ve possibly stolen the money from the safe — only enhances the treacle-slow crawl of the intended focus.
So, some advice: don’t come to this for the plot. You’ve seen the plot, and you’ll be bored, incandescent, and throughly indifferent come the end (the sudden uncovering of, like, four incriminating letters in the final chapter is a clear sign of an author struggling to tie their threads). I would no more look to this for GAD puzzle plotting than I would To Kill a Mockingbird for Grishamesque legal thrills. Treated instead as a character piece and it’s somewhat superb — a slice of small town jealousies and greed, an era-rich examination of family and obligation, and an examination of the way we become trapped by the people around us as much as the decisions we make. Which is not at all what I signed up for, but I’m happy to pass that perspective on if it will help you get more out of this than I did.
And now I really want to read Perry’s second novel, The Never Summer Mystery (1932), which Curtis Evans mentions in an introduction that does a wonderful job of providing context for the unfamiliar milieu as much as the unheralded author. Because we all know authors improve with their second book, right…?
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: What made this such a good read is the way it balances being a character driven story with also being a story with quite an intricate central mystery to solve. The tables are often turned on the reader as new information comes to light and the reader is forced to reinterpret the evidence. The first chapter sets the readers up with a tantalising foreshadowing of events to come but when those events turn up for the second time the reader is already beginning to look at them differently due to the new information they have learnt on the way.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Arrogantly, I assumed I had (roughly) pieced together the explanation for the entire problem, which was somewhat conservative in nature, but, despite correctly identifying some components of the actual solution, Perry kept me from reaching the complete truth – something I find to be incomprehensible in hindsight. In the end, everything clicked together with logical inevitability. From the childhood incidents and the local legend of Haunted Mine to the explosion and bizarre circumstances of the shooting. It all makes sense without taxing the readers credulity too much, because the explanation is not as complex as the premise suggests it to be. And those often tend to be the best kind of detective stories.