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.