Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Two New Award-Winning Mystery Writers, One of Whom is Breathtaking

     Lori Roy won the Edgar for Best First Novel this year for Bent Road.  Gillian Flynn won a number of awards for her first novel, was nominated for her second, and has what should probably be a bestseller with her third (and I say this without
having even read It yet).  In the past, I’ve sometimes discovered a writer that turned out to be pretty wonderful out of the gate and then ran out of steam.  On the other hand, there’s the writer that critics heap with praise and I read one of her books and think, “Really?  Why?”

     Elizabeth George, whose debut A Great Deliverance was a watershed in examining how the damage inflicted upon a child through abuse can manifest itself in the child’s later adulthood, started off like blazes.  Her next three books were excellent, but then something strange began to happen.  They started growing in size, but not in depth or plotting ingenuity.  The lives of Inspector Lynley, his staff, his friends, their relatives, etc., etc., upstaged the mysteries.  Also, George is an American writing about England.  She is fastidious about being authentic in geographic and cultural detail (she acknowledges an assistant working for her there) to such a degree that she practically describes every brick and leaf in each scene.  After reading too many 800+ page books of hers, I started asking myself “Should I have tackled Don Quixote or re-read Ulysses instead?”  I finally gave up on George just as the English TV series The Inspector Lynley Mysteries was broadcast about five or six years ago based on the novels and blessedly free of some of the characters’ backgrounds and over plotting that gummed up the books.

     Martha Grimes is another American writing about the English and she just won the Crime Writers’ Association (the British version of the Edgars) Lifetime Achievement Award.  I mentally scratched my head on that one because I read one of her books about twenty years ago and I couldn’t understand what was going on.  Novelists generally, and mystery writers in particular, have to withhold information, but still tantalize the reader with enough knowledge to create suspense.  Grimes would write scenes without mentioning which characters were speaking or taking action and, beyond all that, I thought the detective and his friend were twits.

     Lori Roy’s Bent Road is set in the 1960s in a Kansas farming community, but it might as well have been set in the 1930s because the characters seem to be trapped in a much earlier time.  That is part of the novel’s theme.  However, at times, I kept thinking I was reading the outline for the lost season of The Waltons.  It feels like what a high school English teacher would call a classic because it is understated and the characters are so reticent about expressing their feelings.  It’s told completely in the third person, but it switches focus from character to character so that it’s the essence of limited omniscience.  The two younger children – one a tween and the other a young teenager – are acted upon by their parents, aunt, uncle, and grandmother in such a way that maturity Is eventually enforced.  So, yes, it is a coming-of-age story.  Politically, it’s intriguing because if one of the characters had had access to a legal abortion, none of the story would have happened.  That’s also part of the point.  And, yes, there are deep feelings and emotions and there is the strong sense that it is a tragedy on the plains, though not as finely wrought as David Wroblewski’s version of Hamlet in 1970s Wisconsin The Story of Edgar SawtelleBent Road feels like a superior Young Adult novel and I don’t mean that to sound condescending.  It just didn’t grip me.  Even after the revelations came, I didn’t feel intrigued.  Roy’s good, but I doubt I’ll read her next novel.

     Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s second novel, is so compelling it should be illegal.  It’s a mystery, yes, but it’s also literary crack.  It’s also set in a Kansas farming community, but it refers back to the horrifying murders of three members of a family in 1985.  The daughter who survived, Libby Day, is re-examining the case because she needs the money that a group of murder freaks, member of The Kill Club, are paying her.  The first catch is that Libby’s older brother, Ben, was convicted of the killings and she is not sure that he’s innocent.  

     Where Flynn really takes off is intercutting Libby’s physical and emotional journey in 2009 with the last day of her family’s life years before.  The younger generation of Bent Road could have become the parents with a failing farm in Dark Places.  Issues like teenage devil worshippers, the destruction of the small family farm, attention misunderstood as sexual interest, and conspiracy theory cultists are woven together seamlessly in the service of a plot that moves with warp speed.  Flynn’s ending has it both ways and it’s pretty astounding.  Not only does she resolve the question of the degree of Ben’s guilt, but she also sneaks in a revelation that she sets up with extreme subtlety in the first chapters presenting The Kill Club.  After reading the first page of the book, I knew I didn’t want it to end because Libby admits she’s searching for her soul.  After finishing the book, I’m looking forward to reading her others.

I guess Eric's hinting I should read these books.

No comments: