Duds of 2015—Mysteries

I’ve done a blog on duds before, several years ago. This year, I’m thinking specifically of failed ordinance. Stuff that didn’t explode as it should’ve done. It’s a great metaphor for books and movies that didn’t work for me in some fashion. The question then becomes why not. 

All reviews are terribly subjective essays. They always say more about the reviewer than the author. These blurbs are far less reviews than they are explorations of what didn’t work for me and what I learned about myself as a reader and as a writer.

THE FIGARO MURDERS for all that it’s marketed as a historical mystery is not a historical mystery. If anything, it’s opera buffa, a send up of the historical mystery. It opens like a standard hist-myst, but I soon realized the plot of the novel is the plot of the opera THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. The protagonist is the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte; he’s living out the plot which comes from Pierre Beaumarchais’s play. The opera has become a standard of the operatic repertoire, even if the play’s fallen out of anything save an upper level French class. An opera fan will probably get a genuine kick out of the book.

I didn’t. I thought the conceit was ‘too clever by half’. I had to go look up all the stuff about Mozart’s opera. I felt sandbagged then hoodwinked. At the same, I did admire the conceit as clever and well executed. My indignation and grudging respect gave way, however, to a realization that I dislike ‘too clever by half’ on general principle. I see it as a form of authorial intrusion, which I consider a fatal narrative flaw. 

With A WATERY GRAVE, I should’ve known better and avoided it. I’m not interested in nautical, 19th century American, or modern British history. I’m not wild about nautical novels, Hornblower excepted. I don’t like locked box mysteries, either. They come across as terribly artificial, which destroys whatever suspense the author intended to build.

A man of color, a half-Maori, is cast as the obvious as hell suspect in a murder of a white woman in antebellum Virginia. The sheriff, who comes across as the blustery Cracker, is smart like a fox and turns his suspect loose to chase the killer, who is presumed to be aboard the naval expedition leaving from Norfolk. The story then becomes confined to the fleet, and given the claustrophobia inherent in a ship, suspense should rise, especially when more bodies accrue.


The real problem lies in the characters. The only one who’s interesting is the sheriff. He turns the Cracker cliche on its head. The rest, including our half-Maori protagonist, get short-shifted to the needs of the plot. I couldn’t have cared less about the villain. They all had a feeling of being unfinished, even the sheriff. The author is a well-respected nautical historian, but she missed the boat (yes, pun intended) by not devoting more to the emotional resonances of the relationships, particularly Wiki, the half-Maori sailor. The author could’ve got a whole novel out of how he got to New England and the far more egalitarian world of a sailing vessel. 

If a man (and in rarer cases, a woman) were a skilled mariner, s/he could get a place on a sailing vessel, regardless of race, legal status (free or slave), or ethnicity. The best parts of Olaudah Equiano’s INTERESTING NARRATIVE address his life as a sailor even though he was a slave. Miles Ogborn speaks to this in his GLOBAL LIVES. This subject is one wherein the actual history is more interesting than the fiction.

MALICE OF FORTUNE I really wanted to like. It takes place in Renaissance Italy during the reign of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). It was the nadir of the Renaissance papacy, the condottieri (including Cesare Borgia), and the professional courtesan. Niccolò Machiavelli, the impecunious secretary to the Republic of Florence aids Damiata, the mistress of Cesare’s murdered, older brother, Juan. By which of the condottieri? or was it you, Damiata? The pope demands Damiata find the killer of his son or be killed herself for the crime. (Talk about some skin in the game!) The pope has already taken her son, his grandson, to compel her acquiescence. 

This was sufficient plot right here, but no, the author had to add Leonardo da Vinci and an elaborate, genuinely geometric scheme that only Leonardo could devise or unravel. This plot also came to involve local witches of various stripes, many of whom had remained unchanged in their classification and function since Roman times. The plot with its sub-currents became came too much to process.

Change of narrators didn’t help, either. Damiata is the narrator for the first third of the narrative, and she commands the reader’s attention--interesting in her own right, threatened by scum on all sides, and possessed of damned few allies. Of these allies is Machiavelli, who takes over the narration once it gets into Renaissance politics and science. Machiavelli is an unreliable narrator in most readers’s eyes, for he wrote THE PRINCE--an essay of advice to Cesare Borgia.

This book is a warning to me and other authors--go for depth of relationship, not complexity of plot.

MORIARTY should teach me that single point of view is not my favorite. First person point of view can become massive self indulgence if not handled with tight control. Pages of information dumped at a single time is still an info dump, even in first person point of view. It can also be the wrong point of view, particularly in complex stories wherein two or more characters advance the story. 

It’s a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, of a sort, because neither the Great Detective nor Dr. Watson are in it. MORIARTY is about just that, Professor Moriarty whose supposed death at Reichenbach Falls has left a vacuum in the criminal underworlds in Britain and America. The great mathematical genius turned criminal mastermind isn’t as interesting as Sherlock; furthermore, he’s not humanized by his version of Dr. Watson. 

(As an aside, MORIARTY has far more coherence than that hot mess Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss served up on New Year’s Day. “The Abominable Bride” was just that—abominable in its bloody incomprehensibility. I finished watching solely because of Martin Freeman, whom I adore. He’s a great Watson, and he had some great lines about what he sees that Sherlock’s blind to. I am a member of the CumberCollective, but Freeman stole this show.) 

I found THE HOUSE OF SILK to be serviceable. Watson was the best character with Sherlock and Mycroft coming off a bit odd. That’s a matter of interpretation. MORIARTY was technically unsound with errors a good editor would’ve marked for revision. Many of these could’ve been avoided if the author hadn’t been so interested in keeping it in first person point of view. (A related error is picking the wrong character to be a POV character.) Multiple POV probably would’ve eliminated much of the slog factor.

Nothing is perfect in this world. (As Bester and Sheridan would say, It’s an imperfect universe.) The best possible solution to that reality is to learn from everything, especially failure. These books failed for me, but it doesn’t mean I can’t learn anything from them, as both reader and writer. As teachable moments, they’re winners.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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