Friday, March 11, 2016

The Fine Line Between a Mystery and a Whiplash Injury

S.G. Redling, Baggage

What’s worse: when a book feels so predictable, you see where it’s headed from page one? Or when the author deliberately coaches you to consider her book predictable, only to pull the rug from under you on page 200? Asking for a friend. That friend happens to be S.G. Redling.

February 17th doesn’t like Anna Ray. That’s the day her father died violently when she was eleven years old. It’s the day her husband hanged himself last year. Anna and her cousin-slash-enabler Jeannie celebrate 2/17 annually by getting blackout drunk—which doesn’t differ much from other days. Except this year, Anna sobers up to discover a cloying, excessively affectionate co-worker has been murdered in a manner clearly targeted at her.

Two lessons I remember from college creative writing classes:
  1. The longer you withhold your Big Reveal, the bigger it’d better be.
  2. The more adamantly your protagonist believes X on page one, the more surely X gets proven false by the end.
Redling violates both. Her structure is complicated enough that explaining the violations is impossible without spoilers, so bear with me. I’ll try to explain without giving too much away.

Anna, an assistant ombudsman at a secluded liberal arts college, doesn’t want male attention. Her husband hasn’t been dead one year. But nerdy art professor Ellis Trachtenberg doesn’t know that; he keeps pressing her with unwanted gifts and attention. His on-campus murder one snowy midnight feels almost relieving. Until, that is, Anna discovers the killer disfigured Ellis’s remains in ways eerily similar to her father’s death. The police notice, too.

S.G. Redling
The story unfolds in two parallel paths. In one, Anna narrates her story in traumatized shoe-gazing alternating with bursts of juvenile drunken self-immolation. Despite being nearly thirty and employed, the circumstances surrounding her father’s death keep her from embracing adulthood. Her mother sends regular letters from prison, which Anna hides, unopened, in a shoebox. Jeannie, her cousin and adoptive sister, joins her for celebratory binges. Anna is a functioning alcoholic.

The second path flashes back to Anna’s history. In third-person, we approach Anna’s father’s death circumspectly (her husband’s death merits only one late, hasty chapter). A failed artist and raging drunk, nobody apparently feels bad when Pops’ remains appear. But Anna concertedly buries the circumstances, terrified to address them directly. This exclusion becomes pointed when Anna divulges the full truth to her troubled husband—but not us. We’re getting stonewalled.

Redling presumably knows seasoned mystery audiences have certain learned habits. Among these, we pay attention not only to what authors say, but what they omit. As Anna repeatedly discusses her history, particularly her father’s death, we notice she’s remarkably circumspect about the event itself. She never actually specifies the killer. Veteran readers can’t help ourselves: we start a suspect list, and quickly winnow it down to only one likely prospect.

I say she “presumably knows” because Redling subverts those habits. Her Big Reveal is that we’re wrong, the death happened exactly like everyone assumes, our suspect list was a waste of time, and… what? Redling outright lied to readers by omission? I don’t mind red herrings. Reading thrillers without them gets boring. I mind when the false path deposits me, not at some unanticipated conclusion, but back at the beginning.

My doubts began with the first flashback chapter, where Jeannie’s mother shows Jeannie a newspaper clipping about the murder. Jeannie has a suitably horrified reaction, especially to the accompanying photograph, and—chapter break! Without telling us anything about the text or photo, we leave that behind, not returning for 150 pages. That’s where I began feeling Redling was treating us unfairly, withholding information the characters have available from the beginning.

Mysteries thrive on hidden information, I understand. Authors cannot tell us everything from the beginning, because facts must be uncovered incrementally. But this isn’t really a mystery; the procedural element is scanty, the police characters thinly developed, existing to propel the plot and (not kidding) burst through doors in timely manners. The mystery is ancillary to what could’ve been a character novel. Redling just withholds information to deliberately mislead us.

I’ve previously reviewed one S.G. Redling novel, dubbing Damocles one of the best books I read in 2013. That novel’s slow, cerebral pace excited me, spotlighting an element often overlooked in genre fiction. So I had high expectations from this novel. If she’d skipped the mystery, focusing on a promising character destroying herself to evade trauma, this could’ve worked. But as genre mystery, it feels more like a chain yank.

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