Mysteries Within Mysteries | The Reader’s Shelf

Take one mysterious literary work and embed it inside another, and the result can be greater than the sum of its parts. These complex, riddling novels fully display their authors’ ingenuity and stylistic versatility while providing fiction lovers with a richer, more rewarding reading experience. 

Take one mysterious literary work and embed it inside another, and the result can be greater than the sum of its parts. These complex, riddling novels fully display their authors’ ingenuity and stylistic versatility while providing fiction lovers with a richer, more rewarding reading experience.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (Anchor. 2001. ISBN 9780385720953) hooks readers from its first pages, as the elderly Iris Chase Griffen recalls the apparent suicide of her younger sister Laura in 1945. From then on, Iris simply goes about her quiet daily life, tartly commenting on the present day while sharing many more memories of her once privileged youth with Laura. Alternating with this narrative are chapters from Laura’s posthumous novel, also called The Blind Assassin: a cryptic tale of two furtive lovers that itself contains a completely jarring pulp science fiction story. It eventually becomes apparent that these tantalizing fictions are somehow connected to Laura’s unhappy life, but Iris is in no hurry to provide any clarification. Instead, her memories grow progressively darker, until, at last, she makes a series of revelations that cast new light on all that has gone before. This masterful, multilayered novel deserves re-reading. READ NEXT: A. S. Byatt equals Atwood’s ambition and literary inventiveness with Possession, her dazzling novel of scholarly romance.

Imagine a novel written by Lord Byron! John Crowley has actually composed such a work and placed it in the pages of his Lord Byron’s Novel (Morrow. 2006. ISBN 9780060556594). Flamboyantly told, Byron’s foray into fiction combines Gothic melodrama with adventure and thwarted romance and features a haunted protagonist who suggests Byron himself. Crowley alternates passages from this work with the story of how modern-day investigators manage to recover the manuscript after it had been encrypted by Byron’s mathematician daughter Ada Lovelace. Throughout, themes of estrangement and betrayal reverberate through the lives of Byron, his fictional alter ego, his daughter, and a father–daughter pair of researchers with family baggage of their own. Crowley aims high in this ambitious literary novel and succeeds admirably. READ NEXT: Arthur Phillips dares to include an entire faux Shakespearean tragedy (or is it real?) in his playful novel of fathers and sons, The Tragedy of Arthur.

John Harwood pays tribute to the classic English ghost story by including several fine pastiches of them in his intricately constructed novel of family secrets, The Ghost Writer (Mariner. 2005. ISBN 9780156032322). Growing up in small-town Australia, Gerard Freeman has only the thinnest of connections to England, where his mother lived her early life: a female pen pal his own age and a series of stories written by his great-grandmother Viola that he gradually uncovers. His mother refuses to comment on these stories; she’ll only say, ominously, that “one came true.” Upon her death, Gerard travels to England, where his research leads him to his mother’s long-abandoned family home, a place of deep shadows, strange noises, and perhaps something much more frightful. The Ghost Writer is rich in the trappings of Gothic and horror fiction, but, as Viola’s stories foreshadow, true evil springs from the vengeful human heart. READ NEXT: There is just one old-fashioned ghost story embedded in Elly Griffiths’s page-turning mystery The Stranger Diaries, but it looms large and sets a pleasingly spooky mood.

An entire collection of short stories makes up the bulk of Alex Pavesi’s debut, The Eighth Detective (Picador. 2021. ISBN 9781250798473). Keen-witted editor Julia Hart seeks out the reclusive mathematician Grant McAllister to interest him in republishing his sole work of fiction, a book of seven stories called The White Murders. These are no ordinary mystery stories, though; each has been carefully crafted to exemplify one of the fundamental structural elements of mystery fiction. Julia is understandably impressed with the cleverness of Grant’s stories, but questions begin to nag at her as they discuss them. When she decides to turn detective herself, the stage is set for yet another impressive display of ingenuity. Admirers of classic puzzle mysteries will be delighted. READ NEXT: Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders is another cerebral mystery in which mathematical analysis plays a major role.

Anthony Horowitz wrote two of the best mysteries of 2017, both of which can be found within the pages of his Magpie Murders (Harper Perennial. 2018. ISBN 9780062645234). Editor Susan Ryeland settles down to read popular writer Alan Conway’s latest manuscript, a traditional English village mystery in the grand style, complete with an eccentrically brilliant detective. To her horror, it breaks off at a key moment. Susan discovers that Conway has apparently killed himself and taken the conclusion of his novel with him. Now she has two mysteries to solve: what happened to Conway, and how did he intend his novel to end. As she hunts for clues, she begins to suspect that the two investigations have more in common than she could have imagined. Horowitz triumphs on many levels, capturing the style of Agatha Christie in Conway’s novel and her skill in plotting throughout. READ NEXT: Susan Ryeland solves another crime with the posthumous help of Alan Conway in Horowitz’s follow-up Moonflower Murders.

This column was contributed by Steven Jablonski, Collection Development Librarian, Skokie Public Library, Illinois.

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