Sunday, November 7, 2010

a ghost story for an autumn evening

Spoiler Alert: I read The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters last night. Eventually, I will be reviewing it here. If you haven't read it yet and are thinking about reading it, you may want to skip this post. I am giving it all away.

I have always been a mystery reader. Like most kids of my generation, I raced through the Nancy Drew books and my brother's Hardy Boys mysteries. Probably unlike most other children, I went on to read my father's Fu Manchu books, which for some inexplicable reason were stored on a low shelf in my bedroom closet. Next was his big book of Sherlock Holmes, which was more to my liking, and I have been reading mysteries pretty much ever since. Murder mysteries, police procedurals, cozy mysteries, ghost stories - I like 'em all. I like mystery series a lot, too, if I manage to get in on the ground floor and read the series straight through.

The pleasure for me, and I suspect all mystery readers, is to figure out "who-dun-it" before the author reveals all at the end of the book. It's a delicate balance. If I figure it out too soon, I feel the author has not done a clever enough job. If I don't figure it out at all, I'm a bit frustrated. I like my mysteries to be pretty formulaic. A crime is committed. Leads are pursued by one sort of detective or another. The guilty party is discovered. I don't like ambiguous endings. And when the author resorts to a clever trick like the unreliable narrator, I find that particularly infuriating.

The first time I ran into that particular literary device was in Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the first books I read by the renowned mystery writer - and also the last. As I read the book, I picked up the clues the author placed for me, like Hansel and Gretel following the bright pebbles back out of the forest after their first successful foray into the darkness. I was so engaged, so trusting. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the author, whom I trusted absolutely, had deliberately led me down the wrong path. It seemed so unfair. It seemed like cheating. I was done with Agatha Christie, and have tried to avoid stories told by unreliable narrators ever since.

So, to review: no ambiguous endings, no unreliable narrators, oh, and very important, no harm to animals, especially dogs. I don't care what kind of murder and mayhem may rain down on the humans in the story (I watch SVU and Bones, remember) but I cannot bear to read about or think about harm to innocent creatures. The book I read last night turned out to have all three. Who knew?

It started out well enough. Set in post-WWII Britain, the author's story of a great house and a great family in decline are familiar enough territory, but she does it well. She takes her time setting the stage, which I like. I became concerned, however, when the first ghostly "incident" involved the beloved family dog. This better not be headed where I think it is, I thought, but it was. I soldiered on, skipping several of the worst pages, and managed to put that behind me. I realized fairly quickly that my narrator was not to be trusted, so I was on the lookout there, but I honestly did think the author would tell all in the end. She did not.

Oh, she left enough clues so I could figure it out to my satisfaction, but I was disappointed that here, too, she took me over such well-travelled ground. Bad things happened to people when the narrator was asleep (think Morbius and his raging id in Forbidden Planet or the Johnny Depp/John Turturro character in Secret Window). Eventually, the narrator has his heart's desire - not the girl, but the mouldering great house he had violated as a child and never forgotten. I have to say, I was very satisfied with the way the author bracketed the rest of the book with scenes of the narrator wandering alone in the huge, old house.

To tell the truth, I realize that I enjoy thinking back on the book more than I enjoyed reading it. Perhaps that's not so bad, as it will surely stay with me longer that way. It would have been nice to have both, though.


jamanci said...

yes, i admit, harm to animals is a struggle for me in books, too! can't say why--it's just as inhumane to harm people, isn't it? but these things always affect me more than they should. even "once and future king," which i read as a child, has its share of awful moments that i still don't like to read. i suppose it helps to reveal the characters of your, well, characters, but still.

anne mancine said...

I feel like VOW, you know? But I just can't help it that I feel that way.

Ben said...

It's interesting that, based on all your usual measures, this wasn't a good read, yet you did write about it and had many good things to say about it.

anne mancine said...

I just feel like I haven't read a new book that I really enjoyed from cover to cover for a long time. I miss that feeling, that total immersion. I had high hopes for this book, so the let-down was more extreme.