The New Book Discussion

Last night I attended another book discussion at the Library. Unlike the previous two, which focused on baseball, this will be regarding mysteries. Our speaker, a dean at Yale, decided our four books and discussion would involve the eternal triangle of the reader, the book and the author.

There are times, he argues, where we challenge ourselves against the author or the characters to solve the mystery and other times we just want to be entertained. He selected books that would span time and distance, focus on male and female leads as well as police and p.i. protagonists.

He’s done this before and has a following so he had a large signup. There were something like 67 people signed up for a maximum of 75 spots.

We began the series with Ngaio Marsh’s Death in a White Tie. Written in 1938, it features her main hero, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and is early in her 32 books. Our speaker was clearly enamored of Marsh and her writing with his copy filled with notes and annotations. The discussion wasn’t as passionate and spirited as the baseball ones and he led us more than I expected, especially given the crowd.

I read the book and wasn’t impressed. As a mystery, it was fine and well-crafted. I didn’t figure out who did it which is a plus. Still, she violated the rules I was taught in that she told more showed us things about the characters. We were told things about them that could have been revealed through dialogue or slightly differently constructed scenes. Also, her characters, except the victim, were straight from central casting. All played a type, all were two-dimensional and even Alleyn was fairly wooden. This book was a pivotal point for Alleyn’s character, in that he managed to finally declare his love for the artist Agatha Troy before discovering the killer’s identity. Apparently, in subsequent books they marry and have a child.

Anyway, our leader showed us little hints in the dialogue and scene construction showing us where she was being playful with the detective fiction form or her view of upper crust British society. Had I cared enough to re-read it, I would have noticed some of this.

But his affection for Marsh clouded his leadership when several of us pointed out she failed to properly document why the character who committed murder actually was blackmailing people. We’re left to infer reasons but I argued it violated the conventions of the form.

Next up is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep which interestingly, was written only a year later, and is a different kind of mystery altogether. Having an excuse to finally read this was one of the reasons I signed up for the discussion.

3 comments

  • I hope you enjoy The Big Sleep. I’m not a huge mystery/p.i. fan, but since I moved to L.A. I figured I had to read some Chandler. So, I got this and his second book Farewell, My Lovely last year out of the library. They’re some pretty crazy books. I want to read the rest of Chandler’s stuff, but I’ve been on a Harry Potter/Dark Tower binge since last August that I finally just got out of.

  • Bob Ahrens

    I suppose for me the tell-not-show approach to character development has only worked in a few instances, most notably the Holmes stories…. Dr. Watson is telling, but being the observer, it comes off more like an internal monalogue, and in most cases, it works.
    Sometimes it’s fun to be told the story… like the voice-over in the original “Blade Runner”. I kinda enjoyed Harrison Ford’s “Sam Spade-esque” narration.

    That’s just my opinion,of course… and I’m sticking to it.

  • Jackie

    Marsh’s mysteries tend to be uneven IMO. Some are better than others but her writing isn’t nearly as engaging as other British mystery authors I can think of.

    Besides Chandler who else are you going to get to read?

    Jackie