Keeping the Unknown a Mystery

I was engrossed in a mystery that grabbed me from the beginning. Set in the mid nineteenth century it commenced with a spooky chase scene in the fog. The shadow-like suspect disappeared around the corner of a stately brownstone. Then, a person vanished when surrounded by crowds and nobody seemed to notice. Was I dealing with an ingenious criminal or something supernatural?  To add to the tension, the hero still agonized about the loss of a recent love as he attempted to buckle down and catch this person-snatcher. 

The villain turned out to be all too human, both extremely narcissistic and cruel. Unfortunately he was still more intelligent than the protagonist. So, he kept on feeding the poor man clues that a villain shouldn’t have to spread around so carelessly. I knew these clues came directly from the antagonist because half of the way through the book, I was introduced to his viewpoint. The villain’s willingness to give himself away was blamed on the “insane” genius. But, it was a ruse to keep the tension high in the story. The author was no genius and seemed to have forgotten that glimpses of the villain were seen only by the readers. However, the protagonist became clairvoyant, magically deducing whatever was revealed to me.

 Perhaps I am being too hard on this piece of fiction because I am not as fond of suspense as traditional mysteries. A good mystery is not easy to write. If it has a plot that is too complex, many of the readers will fail to grasp the elaborate twists and turns. If the plot is simpler, it is harder to hold some reader’s attention. It takes skill to create a book that keeps the reader in suspense for an entire 300 pages and then reveals an answer that makes sense but was never obvious. But, a quality suspense novel, in which the viewpoints of both the protagonist and antagonist are revealed, is even more difficult.

Perhaps my favorite suspense author is Daphne du Maurier. Her stories are often disquieting without anything gruesome or horrifying mentioned because of her subtle way of creating scenes with a threatening mood. However, what makes her style of suspense distinctive is playing both with the characters and plot. Events unfold in a way that makes the reader question motives of people in her stories. One character is slowly revealed as a different kind of person than the reader suspected. But, is that truly what is occurring? The reader remains unsure if they have an accurate idea of the character’s real nature. Is she honest or deceptive? Sometimes this is revealed in the end, and sometimes the question is never answered. 

I know that last option will not be satisfying to some readers. But, as I think about what I expect of the ultimate suspense, I realize that I don’t want to know who will win. As I read about two people engaged in a cat and mouse game, what really holds my attention until the end is not knowing which one is the hero, and which is the villain.

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