I recently read two novels that set me to thinking about what makes a story a mystery: Richard Russo’s Chances Are . . . and Tana French’s The Witch Elm. The authors are not strangers to me. Maine’s own Russo is a special favorite. I’ve read and–in varying degrees enjoyed—all his books. I’ve read with pleasure some but not all of French’s Ireland-based detective novels and plan to go back to the earlier ones I missed. The two novels in question are very different, but I had fun reading both of them.
My rather odd decision to compare them as a way of figuring out what makes a mystery a mystery resulted from my wife’s question about whether she should read them. That’s a typical pattern for us. We have different tastes in fiction but always request and respect each other’s recommendations. I need to note that my wife, though married to a would-be mystery writer, really can’t stand and never reads mysteries, including my own. So it was a relatively easy call to not recommend French’s novel. But at the same time I considered it a bit more than a straight mystery and was tempted to suggest she try it. I finally resisted the temptation. The Russo novel presented more difficulty. She’s read most of Russo, though without the consistent pleasure his works gave me. In this case, however, I did recommend it, though with a warning that in a certain way it is, unlike any of his others, a mystery. Explaining that to her is what got me to thinking about what makes a novel a mystery. (And, BTW, she liked the characters and the non-mystery plots but would have been happy not to have the mystery aspects. No surprise there.)
Chances Are . .. narrates the story of three men who attended college together in the late 1960s. What they had in common was, in part, their unrequited love for a fellow student, a complicated and engaging woman. They also shared the experience of being subject to the Vietnam draft lottery in 1969. Two drew high numbers that in effect shielded them from the draft, while the third drew a low number. The story is set at a reunion weekend in Martha’s Vineyard when they are in their mid-sixties. The thematic core of the story is reflected in the song of their youth that is also the book’s title: Chances Are. Life is all about chances. The unrequited love plot enfolds a mystery: what happened to the woman, Jacy? She apparently disappeared after spending a weekend with them on the Vineyard back in 1970, the summer after their college graduation. As in a classic mystery, there are hints of murder, multiple plausible perpetrators, and even a grizzled now retired policeman who thinks he knows where a body is buried. But is Chances Are . . . a “mystery” in the way readers of this blog might think of that term? Well, probably not, certainly not one in the vein of a police procedural, though possibly a character-based cozy.
Tana French has written classic police procedurals, but The Witch Elm is very different. It’s got a bloody murder (actually two), multiple possible perps, related (maybe) crimes, and cops galore. But to me it read more like a P.D. James psychological novel. The central murder is eventually solved in the sense that we learn who did it, but the real murderers go unpunished, while the narrator, wholly innocent of that one, suffers daunting mental problems and ultimately murders the detecting policeman—who richly deserves it! This is not your father’s mystery novel, but it’s a page-turning exploration of the many psychological ills induced by crimes.
One possible conclusion is to say that Russo’s novel is a mystery disguised as a social novel of manners and that French’s is a social novel of manners disguised as a mystery. Or maybe the other way around?
Reading these two mysteries-that-may-not-be mysteries raised all sorts of questions for me about what constitutes a true mystery. Maybe it doesn’t matter what genre label we place on a book. Maybe all that matters is whether a story engages the reader through intriguing characters, interesting themes, and vivid writing. But I still think it’s worth asking: what’s a mystery novel?