Opening a Mystery Novel

So, what with the lecture on the mystery and suspense genre and then your recommendations, I now have a good handful of new samples of books on my Kindle.

As you may know, I read fewer books per year as I used to, what with spending a lot of time writing. Perhaps as a result, I’m also a lot (really: a lot) less patient with a book these days if it doesn’t catch me pretty quickly. Which emphatically doesn’t mean that a book has to start with a bang; I’ve noted before that a quiet beginning can be very engaging for me. But if I’m not caught by the opening pages, I’m unlikely to make it more than ten pages before deciding that, well, there are lots of books and not that many minutes in a lifetime. It can happen – it did, in fact, recently, with a book that isn’t actually out yet; I didn’t much care for the opening chapter but wound up loving many things about the book, which, well, never mind. I’ll tell you about it when it’s available. But as a rule, I need to be engaged fast or I just set the book aside.

That means character.

Well, I suppose it’s actually a combination of character, style, and setting. You could also say voice, quality of the writing, and worldbuilding — I mean all of that. I like mysteries with historical settings, so worldbuilding in those is a lot like worldbuilding a secondary world fantasy.

All of those elements are important. For me, plot comes very much after those elements, although sometimes I do read and enjoy a book primarily because of the plot. Not mysteries, as a rule. As a rule, for me, mysteries are all about character, style, and setting.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the opening of these mysteries I just picked up. All these authors are new-to-me except Kipling, because hello, Jungle Books. I’m sure I read other books of Kiplings many years ago. Who wrote The White Seal? Yep, that was Kipling, I thought so. Well, I was all about animal stories when I was a kid. That story has some pretty grim scenes for a kid, incidentally. But it’s an excellent animal story. There’s an unintentionally hilarious review on Amazon, I see. Here’s the review: Fiction is one thing, but, some stories should be left back in the day when ignorance could be used an excuse for a “cute” representation of wildlife. Poor example of a children’s story.

Nothing could be less cute than the representation of seals in this story. Seriously, I wonder what book this woman actually read?

Anyway, let’s take a look at these mysteries:

1. Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker.

On a bright May morning, so early that the last of the mist was still lingering low over a bend in the Vézère River, a white van drew to a halt on the ridge that overlooked the small French town. A man climbed out, strode to the edge of the road and stretched mightily as he admired the familiar view of St. Denis. The town emerged from the lush green of the trees and meadows like a tumbled heap of treasure; the golden stone of the buildings, the ruby red tiles of the rooftops and the silver curve of the river running through it. The houses clustered down the slope and around the main square of the Hôtel de Ville where the council chamber, its Mairie, and the office of the town’s own policeman perched above the thick stone columns that framed the covered market. The grime of three centuries only lately scrubbed away, its honey-colored stone glowed richly in the morning sun.

Well, that certainly starts with the setting! That’s very nice. Warm. Pleasant. Soothing, even. We haven’t yet been offered any clue about who this person is. The detective? The murderer? The victim? In anything but a murder mystery, “the man” would be the protagonist, but in a mystery, he could be any of those.

This is either a very distant third-person narrative or an omniscient narrative. That’s a difficult choice for me as a writer, but it can work for me as a reader. Ah, reading on a bit, I see we have a good deal more scenery and discover, eventually, that this is the titular Bruno himself, which did seem likely. That’s good. I do prefer not to start with the murderer or the victim, though I tolerate that in a mystery.

Anyway, I like this beginning. It’s not emotionally engaging. That would take a less distant protagonist. But this is pleasant to read and I enjoy this elaborate drawing of the setting. Two out of three – style and setting. I would certainly go on with this story. And, you know, it’s the first of a longish series, so that’s always good if you like the first book.


2. All Shall Be Well by Deborah Crombie. This is Book 2. Reviews suggest the author hasn’t quite hit her stride in the first book, the description of the plot didn’t really appeal to me. I preferred the sound of this one. Besides, I really liked the title.

Jasmine Dent let her head fall back against the pillows and closed her eyes. Morphine coats the mind like fuzz on a peach, she thought sleepily, and smiled a little at her metaphor. For a while she floated between sleeping and waking, aware of faint sounds drifting in through the open window, aware of the sunlight flowing across the foot of her bed, but unable to rouse herself.

Her earliest memories were of heat and dust, and the unseasonable warmth of the April afternoon conjured up smells and sounds that danced in her mind like long-forgotten wraiths. Jasmine wondered if the long, slow hours of her childhood lay buried somewhere in the cells of her brain, waiting to explode upon her consciousness with that particular lucidity attributed to he memories of the dying.

She was born in India, in Mayapore, a child of the dissolution of the Raj. Her father, a minor civil servant, had sat out the war in an obscure office. In 1947, he had chosen to stay in India, scraping a living from his ICS pension.

Of her mother she had little recollection. Five years after Jasmine’s birth, she had borne Theo and passed away, making as little fuss in dying as she had in living. She left behind only a faint scent of English roses that mingled in Jasmine’s mind with the click of closing shutters and the sound of insects singing.

Not bad, but not quite as engaging for me as the one above. Why not?

Well, first, this is almost as distant a third person as the first book offered. Second, I know from the back cover copy that Jasmine is not the protagonist. She’s going to die. That makes me want to hold her at a distance. I’m not sure I care about her enough to be interested in details about her parents. Also, I’m put off by She was born in India. What’s wrong with the past perfect tense? This is the exact sort of situation the past perfect is meant to handle. I know this is a stylistic choice. It’s a common stylistic choice. It’s just one I happen to dislike. This type of locution sets my teeth on edge every single time I see it. It’s so common that I will tolerate it, but still, teeth on edge.

Would I go on with this book? Sure. But that’s because it was recommended by a commenter here, not on the merits of this opening. I don’t hate this opening, but it’s not particularly appealing either.

3. The 39 Steps by John Buchan.

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. “Richard Hannay,” I kept telling myself, “you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.”

It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up those last years in Buluwayo. I had got my pile – not one of the big ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of my days.

But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I was tired of seeing the sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings. I had no real pal to go about with, which probably explains things. Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested in me. They would fling me a question or two about South Africa and then get on to their own affairs …

Well, that’s quite a contrast with the ones above, isn’t it? First person, with a strong, clear voice from the first. Not that I particularly like Richard. He seems like kind of a jerk. But this is a smooth, breezy style that’s easy to read. I wouldn’t read a whole book from the pov of this guy if he just wandered around feeling hard done by and unappreciated, but I suspect the story is going to give him something to worry about besides boredom with London and the lack of a pal to go about with.

I like the atmosphere. This is a completely different way of establishing the setting. The first book on this list, Inspector Bruno, steps back and pans a camera across the scenery for the reader. This one drops the reader directly into the setting. Also, I can’t help but notice the appropriate and smooth use of the past perfect. I’d go on with this for some pages, waiting to see Richard gets more appealing or if the plot thickens fast enough to catch my interest. I think the latter is more likely to happen first in this particular story.

4. The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

I quite like the cover, but find the title almost unreadable in this font. I guess the author’s name is supposed the be the important part.

There is no mystery to happiness.

Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn – or worse, indifference – cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn’t look ahead. He lives in the present.

But there’s the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning – the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life – a man must reinhabit the past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them.

For myself, I have always chosen meaning. Which, I suppose, is how I came to be waiting in the swelter and mob of Hoboken Harbor on Sunday evening, August 29, 1909, for the arrival of the Nord-deutsche Lloyd steamship, bound from Bremen, carrying to our shores the one man in the world I wanted most to meet.

Wow! What a different type of opening. Pretentious philosophy, and quite wrong too, which is off-putting. Happiness is living in the moment! Happiness and meaning are mutually exclusive! I don’t agree at all. I’m thoroughly out of charity with the narrator, whoever he is. And yet! The last sentence I quoted above would make practically anyone turn the page, surely, no matter what the reader might think of this person’s philosophical treatise about happiness versus meaning. Aren’t you interested to find out who this one man in the world might be, and why he’s the last man in the world the narrator wants to meet?

Now, actually, the narrator here is Sigmund Freud. How about that? Did anybody know that already? If it’s a revelation, does that change how you feel about the story? For me, it guarantees that I’ll go on. I don’t need to like Sigmund Freud to be interested in where he goes and what he does and – incidentally – in the way he goes about solving a murder, because that’s where this story is heading. With Jung and I think a couple other historical figures we might recognize, too.

Such a remarkable idea for a murder mystery!

5. Death at Rainy Mountain by Mardi Oakley Medawar.

They say that we came from the Crow. Before that, from the Mandan. Maybe we did. Personally, I don’t believe it. I do believe in the stories that tell about a time before the Lakota came from the north country and when we, the Kiowa, like the Southern Cheyenne, lived near the Black Hills. But since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather, we have lived in this place, a verdant land just above the Red River, a river that separates our country from Texas. For all of my grandfather’s time this has been our homeland. And our most sacred place within this homeland, the Rainy Mountain.

In the summer season of 1866, I was somewhere in my early thirties. Thirty-two, thirty-three maybe, no more than that. What is clear in my mind is what a terrible summer that season was. It all began to go wrong when our principal chief, Little Bluff, died. For thirty-three years Little Bluff had been responsible for keeping an independent, furiously stubborn people, lacking even the basic understanding of the term compromise, united as a single race. Then, to our great dismay, he died. Not on the battlefield, further adding to his legend with a richly deserved hero’s death, but in his sleep, like a tired, used-up old man. Only to honor him would the six bands and the multitude of sub-bands converge at the humidity-drenched base of the Rainy Mountain during the full and punishing heat of summer, fighting mosquitoes and, as it almost happened, one another.

We Kiowa have never lived as the white man has portrayed us, in big groups, in a gigantic village sprawling across the prairie. It’s a very romantic notion, but stupid. Consider the practicalities. Each band and sub-band had its own chiefs and minor chiefs. A band generally comprised sixty to eighty lodges, a sub-band, twenty to thirty. When the entire Nation came together it made for an impressive sight of thousands of lodges stretching along a river. But we could not live that way. …

I am disappointed by this opening. I have a sense of place, but barely, and that’s it. I have no sense of the narrator yet, except that he is emotionally distant from this setting, maybe emotionally distant from the story itself. This is quite different from The 39 Steps. Both are first person, obviously, but Buchan’s opening pours the reader into the perception of the narrator, who is definitely part of the world he’s describing. Here, I don’t think it feels that way at all. The first four sentences start to build a sense of the narrator as a person, but after that, this reads a lot like a history textbook cast into first-person narrative form. Which is what it is, as the author tries to establish this setting by throwing a lot of historical and anthropological details into these first paragraphs. The immediate setting gets lost as we are dragged into an lecture about the traditional structure of Kiowa tribes. I’m not interested, which is remarkable, as I actually *am* interested. But I’m not interested here. If I were reading a nonfiction text, I’d be fine with learning how big tribes and sub-tribes were, and I’d be asking about how many people there might be per lodge and what is family structure like and so on.Here, I want to start the story.

Once the story actually starts, this might improve. But remember this sentence? What is clear in my mind is what a terrible summer that season was. This story is forecast as a tragedy, or at least the reader is apparently going to be dragged through terrible events. I’m not interested in enduring a terrible summer! Flipping ahead, I see the history lesson goes on and on. We shift from broad history to more personal history, but it’s taking forever to start the story. Oh, there. Finally. And even now, I still have no sense of the narrator as a person.

As far as I’m concerned, this beginning doesn’t work well. I don’t think we have any sense of the protagonist. I don’t think we have a very good feel for the setting – I don’t feel like I’m drawn into this setting. This world doesn’t feel real or immediate to me. That’s what I want, and I’m not getting it because all this description of the history and the region is too academic and textbook-y for too long. It does get more interesting as the history gets more personal. But I’m also not impressed by the style. The language is correct, but the sentences aren’t beautiful, or even particularly smooth. I had great hopes for this based on the comments from the lectures on the mystery genre, but, well, I might read the rest of the sample. Or at least another few pages. But this is looking like a story that I probably won’t finish.

I wonder if I might like the second book in the series better. Once the setting is established and Medawar no longer feels she has to explain everything, maybe she can relax and just write the story.

6. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

There’s a tremendous amount of front matter in this book. After some thought, I’ve decided to skip ahead past this, that, and the other, and start with chapter one. Here’s where the story actually begins:

It was a beautiful morning at the end of November. During the night it had snowed, but only a little, and the earth was covered with a cool blanket no more than three fingers high. In the darkness, immediately after lauds, we heard Mass in a village in the valley. Then, a the sun first appeared, we set of toward the mountains.

While we toiled up the steep path that wound around the mountain, I saw the abbey. I was amazed, not by the walls that girded it on every side, similar to others to be seen in all the Christian world, but by the bulk of what I later learned was the Aedificium. This was an octagonal construction that from a distance seemed a tetragon (a perfect form, which expresses the sturdiness and impregnability of the City of God), whose southern sides stood on the plateau of the abbey, while the northern ones seemed to grow from the steep side of the mountain, a sheer drop, to which they were bound. I might say that from below, at certain points, the cliff seemed to extend, reaching up toward the heavens, with the rock’s same colors and material, which at a certain point became keep and tower (work of giants who had great familiarity with earth and sky). Three rows of windows proclaimed the triune rhythm of its elevation, so that what was physically squared upon the earth was spiritually triangular in the sky. … 

Beautiful sentences: A+.  Setting, A+. Intellectually entertaining, no question about that. The protagonist himself is rather opaque, even unavailable, at least for now. Would I read further? Absolutely.

There’s a longish prologue that starts like this: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. … This is not exactly reading like an introduction to the story, nor like a short story in itself, which is one way to make a prologue work. That’s why I skipped ahead. Before the prologue, there’s a note about the organization of the book. Before that, there’s a fictional introduction that explains the story to come is actually the translation of a mysterious manuscript. That’s an awful lot of front matter before the story itself begins, and then we have this very scenery-heavy beginning. This could all work for me; I’m enjoying the style. I like long, ornate sentences. That is, I like them intellectually. Right now I’m the opposite of emotionally engaged. But I would read further. That’s what style can do. I’m not turned off by anything and I’m entertained by the style. That won’t carry me through a long novel, but it will carry me through the first chapter. After that, we’ll see.

Now, I know this is a famous book. Some of you must have read it. What did you think?

7. Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-ammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that “fire-breathing dragon,” hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

There was some justification for Kim – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s Boy off the trunnions – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim’s mother’s sister; but his mother had been a nurse-maid in a Colonel’s family and had married Kimball O’Hara, a young colour-seargeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O’Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for a child, tried to catch him, but O’Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India.

Here we have an opening that does what the Rainy Mountain opening did not do: it carries the reader straight into a probably unfamiliar historical setting. Kipling does this by including unfamiliar details without explaining them or shifting from the story to a lesson about the history of the region. The history that is included – Kim’s own history – is intimate, not broad-scale. The details are immersed in the world, without the author pulling back to painstakingly explain what is meant by half-caste or what it means to “pretend” to keep a shop or whatever.

I will also pause to note that when Kipling starts to describe long-past events with the simple past tense instead of the past perfect, he does it so smoothly that it works just fine and doesn’t jar me at all.

It is, of course, not really fair to compare any random writer to Kipling.

I should add that, though the setting of Kim is enough to draw me through the first pages, if we don’t actually meet the character and start the story pretty soon, I could get bored … I see in a few pages, we do start the story. It’s not at all clear that we’re heading into a spy novel, but it’s clear that things are happening and I assume those things will kick the story into motion.

Okay! So that’s seven mystery or suspense novels. What do you think? Any work particularly well or particularly badly for you?

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5 thoughts on “Opening a Mystery Novel”

  1. I’ve read the Bruno Chief of Police book (and am eagerly awaiting the 14th novel next month), The Name of the Rose, and Kim.

    I pretty much read Bruno for the characters and the cooking and the French history lessons, haha. Eco’s book is clearly more on the literary side of a historical mystery, and I forgot that Kim was technically a suspense book (though looking again, I clearly put it on my Goodreads shelf for mysteries/thrillers). I think your assessment of those three beginnings are pretty much on the money as well.

    I hope whatever you continue with work out!

    I’m so glad you do these, though, Rachel, because I need to learn to do something similar to myself.. I’m much more of a “read the blurb, buy the book” kind of guy, and I keep forgetting that I can actually SAMPLE books.

  2. I love KIM most for the immersion into place and culture, but in fact I do adore several of its characters—Kim himself, but also his beloved Lama, whom you’ll meet in just a few pages, and several extremely vivid minor characters. I don’t think of it as a spy novel though: the spy-story (the “Great Game” between European colonial powers) is just a framework for Kim’s travels, the people he meets and the places he goes.

    Of the others, I think I’ve only read THE 39 STEPS, which does quite quickly pick up a pulse-racing plot. Richard Hannay is one of those characters who’s incredibly cool and competent in a crisis, however much he complains at first, so he’s fun to follow along and see how narrowly he’ll manage to extricate himself from disaster.

  3. Surfacing from cooking (chili and lemon chicken soup) to chime in:
    Read (sort of ) the Eco, it left me cold and I remember skimming a lot of it. I may appreciate more, now as my read was back when it was new. Haven’t read any of the others. Of the openings posted

    Kim has life, and we may not be clear on what the story is, we know the titular character is the sort who disobeys rules made by distant people, see defiance of municiple orders to sit on the cannon; kicked someone else off it (or something close to it (the trunnions, which I had to look up) we have begun to meet the characcter and grasp what he is like already. Then we get his history, which is embedded in a wealth of detail about the setting, world-building. It makes me inclined to try to read it again. Maybe this time I’ll get through it.

    Scrolling up – I guess I’m going in reverse order –

    Name of the Rose meh. Yes, the writing is beautiful. Where is the world and the character (any character, I don’t necessarily need a protaganist, just someone) and the story? If I squint I see a bit of a character: the narrator is precise and has inclinations to theology/philosophy in a non-modern way of thinking: all that stuff about shapes tetragon the perfect form, and so forth. Is that enough to draw me in? Nope. Not unless I’m in the mood for something very different.

    Death at Rainy Mountain Channeling the Teen ‘flat’. I don’t even really get a sense of a place; lots are mentioned, but verdant land where the narrator lives now can be a number of things. There’s not enough to pin it as a specific place. And then it really goes dead. And why do we need to know all that? There’s no sweep, no sense of a coherent whole of a world. And I don’t believe the narrator really is an 1866 Kiowa, unless I rapidly get information that he was raised way elsewhere, or is a century old and loooking back with modern thinking and distance from his people. Pass.

    The Intepretation of Murder huh… is the writer deliberately challenging that Tolstoy line about all happy stories are the same and unhappy ones are different? That’s at least a different way of opening a novel. I disagree with a lot of the apparent philosophy, but it does give us a character and one who sounds reasonably intelligent. And then we get a date and place. I may flip the page, may not. Intelligent characters are a draw.

    The 39 Steps I’ve read something by Buchan, but not this one. Goodness, it’s a lively opening compared to the last two. Effecient writing, too. We get a sense of character in his dissatisfaction and fish-out-of-water-ness, the mention of plans, etc., the setting, and a feel for when the story is set. In what it conveys in the quoted passage it’s like the Kipling – dense with info and personality. I’d probably go on a bit.

    All Shall Be Well Decent characterization, but is she dying? Why are we opening the story with her?I can guess that she’s not in India, from the remark about an unseasonably warm April sun, but beyond that not a lot of world-building. Or in what way the details in the opening might matter. Nothing gives me a reason to keep going. Not bad, not flat, just not engaging either.

    Bruno, Chief of Police argh. I strongly dislike stories that open with ‘the man’ or equivalents for sex and age, so that’s an immediate negative for me. Better written than some of these, but does not engage like the Buchan and Kipling. Also less dense with information. All we get is setting, and the fact the market building has recently been restored. (I guess? cleaned, anyway.) The quality of the writing in the scene setting would probably get me to turn the page and give it a bit more of a chance.

    Looking at them all I’m impressed with the old school writers for getting so much in. The modern ones aren’t nearly as information rich, although it looks like the author of Rainy Mountain was trying, but didn’t know how.

  4. I’ve read The Name of the Rose, but so long ago I can’t even remember liking it or not. I definitely read the books for character development which is why the Deborah Crombie series works for me in a way the Martin Walker series does not (although I actually do love the books and get a kick out of the cooking, and the dogs, and the history). The Dame Frevisse novels are special- I love the nunnery infighting, and the last novel is special. It reminds me a little of In this House of Brede, maybe.

  5. Alison, I’m definitely trying the Dame Frevisse series too! I guess I missed it when opening up the new samples. And if the last book reminds you of In This House of Brede, then I’m definitely going to read the whole series in order to read that one. Brede is one of my all-time favorite books.

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