Searching for the next read: three literary mysteries disappoint

A rap against mystery fiction — indeed, against any so-called genre fiction — is that it follows conventional formulas and is lacking the depth that would qualify it as literature.

Although I don’t see a clear line separating all genre fiction from literary fiction, I have closed many a mystery novel feeling that the plot was clever, the writing was good, but the character development was weak. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy mystery fiction. But I tend to treat it like dessert, indulged in only now and then.

There are some mystery novels, however, that have been privileged with the label “literary mystery”; it’s typical for critics to say that they “transcend the genre.” For examples, think of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books and Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.

After googling “best literary mysteries,” I recently decided to read three books that appear on many best lists. Each is hailed as a genre breaker, unlike any detective story published up to then.

By the time I finished those three, I was more than ready to pick up a book that purports to be nothing more than a whodunnit.

The first was John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions, published in 1977. It is based on the Black Dahlia murder case in 1948 Los Angeles and features homicide detective Tom Spellacy and his cleric brother, Monsignor Desmond Spellacy. In the introduction to a new edition, crime writer George P. Pelecanos praises Dunne for writing that is more realistically gritty than any previous detective novel’s. Unlike the two books that were to follow, True Confessions wasn’t over my head — but it turned my stomach. Women, blacks, gays, ethnic groups — there were slurs for every group. You’ve heard of safe spaces? I wanted to escape to one.

Next came The Name of the Rose, an intellectual mystery published in 1980. Author Umberto Eco was an Italian professor of semiotics, the study of how signs make meaning. In The Name of the Rose, monks are being murdered in a Benedictine abbey in the 13th century, a time of warring factions within Christianity. I could follow the clerical debates between the factions, and at the end I understood what religious belief had to do with the murders. But I had little grasp of how the philosophical discussions related to the plot. I’m not sure that another reading would make me any wiser — at any rate, I’m not interested enough to try.

Finally there was the baffling The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, published in 1985. I have no idea what the three interconnected detective stories contained in one volume are supposed to mean. The detection involves writing, not corpses. The stories don’t make much sense. I sought help by googling and learned from some readers that the point is about learning to live with not knowing. Or something like that.

Deflated, I decided to stop looking for literary mysteries. I’m back to wondering what to read next. I waver between thinking I should challenge myself to thinking that at this stage of life I’m entitled to read for pleasure. Of course, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but finding novels I enjoy with just enough challenge is a challenge. When they’re too lightweight, they bore me; when they’re too difficult, they oppress me. Where is the line for me, and what authors reside there?

When my intellectual pretensions suggest classics, I check my gut — do I really want to? — and back off. When I delve into contemporary literary novels, I’m often turned off by flimsy plots and writing that draws attention to itself.

I’m not alone in floundering. A New York Times guide called “Tap Your Inner Reader” opens with: “When you work at The New York Times Book Review, you discover two things pretty quickly: 1) There are a lot of passionate readers out there, and 2) Most of them have no idea what to read next.” Rather than specific book recommendations, it has tips to help figure out what type of reader you are, which will guide your choice of books.

As I think about what type of reader I am, I remind myself that slogging through those three literary mysteries because of their reputations shows that I’m still not allowing myself to quit a book. Reading a novel ought not to be tortuous. The first reason to read a novel is for pleasure. If the novel widens my mind at the same time, that’s good, but enjoying it should be enough.




“If a novelist had concocted a villain like Trump — a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses — she or he would likely be accused of extreme contrivance and implausibility.”
—Michiko Kakutani, author of The Death of Truth

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