Three suspense novels that I’ve recently enjoyed (A Simple Plan, Silence of the Lambs, and Murder on the Orient Express)

asimpleplanYou know, I don’t really care about plot. I mean, I write fairly plot-heavy stories, because that is the expectation in the speculative fiction world, but it often seems a bit pointless to me. It’s a whole lot of running here and running there and inserting enough foreshadowing to earn your surprising, yet inevitable, ending. There’s some weird way in which plot just doesn’t feel fun. To me, the best plots are the ones that don’t call too much attention to themselves: they’re content to serve as a scaffolding for the good stuff—the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the funny bits.

And this extends to my reading. I don’t usually read stories in order to find out what happens next. In fact, if I feel like things are getting too suspenseful, I’ll sometimes go and look up the plot summary on Wikipedia just because I don’t actually value the experience of being kept in suspense.

But, lately, for some reason, I’ve been reading a number of suspense-type novels. And I’ve not only enjoyed them, but I’ve learned a lot from them. You hear so much about how “all the plots have been done before” and how “it’s about execution, not ideas,” but the truth is that a novel can get a lot of mileage off an idea that hasn’t been done before.

For instance, Silence of the Lambs found a clever way to solve the ur-problem of the mystery genre. Basically, criminals are sexy and cool. People read mystery novels, in part, because they want to hear about awesome and charismatic criminals. But, since the whole novel is about catching the criminal, there are a lot of logistical barriers to getting the criminal onscreen before the end of the novel. By necessity, the detective can’t really interact with the criminal very much, since they’re supposed to be trying to figure out who the criminal is. This is particularly problematic in serial killer stories, where a major part of the allure is the grotesque psychology of the killer—this person is supposedly utterly unlike regular people, but you never get to see him.

Some novels solve this by using a split-screen approach. You follow the criminal and the detective in alternating chapters. But this is still a bit unsatisfying, because your super-cool detective still never gets to interact with your super-cool criminal and because it destroys the mystery—now the audience knows exactly who the criminal is and, basically, how he’s going to get caught.

asotlbookSilence of the Lambs is ingenious because it just throws in an extra serial killer. You have Hannibal Lecter, who is not really at all relevant to the plot, to flounce around and act all cool and scary and have witty exchanges with Clarice Starling. And then you have Buffalo Bill, to provide the actual mystery. Although it makes the plot super messy (you could lift out every Hannibal-related section without materially affecting the rest of the book), it also makes for a very enjoyable story. In terms of reading experience, neither half of the book could work without the other. Without Hannibal, there’d be no fun. And without Buffalo Bill, there’d be no suspense.

Also, it's worth noting that Silence of the Lambs is very well-written. It has a stripped-down style that feels effortless, but must've been a lot of work to achieve.

Another one that I recently read was A Simple Plan, by Scott Smith. A student in the MFA program recommended it to me. I could not believe that I’d never heard of this book before. It is amazing. It’s a very typical noir story: three guys in rural Ohio find $4 million in a crashed plane in the woods and they find themselves doing increasingly desperate things to keep it. It’s weird. This novel is so utterly simple, and even predictable, but a few simple modifications to the model were all it needed in order to feel fresh. Somehow, this story dispenses with the noir affectations. There is nothing cool about the hero. He’s a dope: an accountant at the feed store. At some point, he even says, “We’re not smart enough to get away with this.” But he tries so hard. At every stage, he sits down and he thinks and he plans and you can feel his mind struggling to make everything come out right. There’s something so real about the protagonist. Oh, and his wife. His wife is amazing. I guess she’s a femme fatale? But she’s not sexy. She’s cold and calculating but still never human. I’ve never read another character like her in a crime novel.

Agatha Christie’s novels tend to not have much personality, and Murder On The Orient Express is no different. Hercule Poirot is kind of a null as a detective. He’s nothing more than a funny accent. And her characters are just sketches. They’re backgrounds: they have no voice; no realness. Only her settings sometimes escape the general lividity. At times, the snowbound Orient Express started to feel a tiny bit alive. But, you know what, none of that matters. Because Christie really is a genius. She somehow managed to do stories that had never been done before (and, once done by her, can never really be done again). This one had a jaw-dropped ending that I came to almost unspoiled. An extremely successful novel.

Books to try reading when you’re in a bad mood (Coetzee, Hornby, Agatha Christie, and Ira Levin)

I’ve been in kind of a bad mood lately (one that, thankfully, seems to have at least temporarily abated), and it was that kind of mood where I both really wanted to read something—television really held no appeal for me—but was also disgusted by everything that I tried to read. I must’ve read the first pages of at least three dozen books. Especially Graham Greene novels. I kept thinking that I wanted to read Graham Greene, only to discover that I really did not want to be reading Graham Greene. I guess what I really wanted was to be able to go back in time and read The Power And The Glory for the first time. Anyway, the books I did end up reading were fascinating to me—they’re about as different, in terms of comfort reading, as one can imagine. And, yet, they all had their consolations.

____high_fidelity2High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – A few days ago, I and a bunch of the MFA peeps were talking about Nick Hornby in the context of chicklit. He’s the perfect example of an author who would be thrown into the chick-lit ghetto if he was a woman. However, since he’s a man, he can write fluffy, slangy books about youngish people who live in urban environments and have aspirational jobs and relationship troubles. And it’s okay, because it’s literature (another example: J.D. Salinger). Anyway, I’m not one to ignore an author just because he’s the beneficiary of a sexist literary establishment (after all, I want to benefit from that establishment myself someday). I quite enjoyed this novel. I’d seen the movie previously (it’s about a record store owner whose girlfriend breaks up with him because he is immature…alright, I know…that’s pretty much what all male coming-of-age stories are about…) But the novel has some nuances that were absent from the book. For instance, even after they get back together, the main character’s relationship with his girlfriend remains a bit limp and sad. The whole novel was surprisingly sad, actually. The main character has a very empty, friendless life. And it doesn’t feel like much is ever going to fill it up. The book was easy to read and made me feel a lot better.

life-and-times-of-michael-k-a-novelThe Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee – I really didn’t want to read this book. It was the absolute opposite of what I thought comfort-reading should be. It’s a very quiet, very spare, very beautifully-written account of a somewhat-stupid man who takes his mother out into the war-wracked countryside (so she can go back to the farm where she grew up). But I read the first page. And then I read the second page. And then I kept reading pages. And before I knew it I was like a tenth of the way into the book. I kept feeling like I shouldn’t be reading it. This was not what I wanted at the moment at all! But I couldn’t stop. It had a weird immersive quality to it. I didn’t quite enjoy it, not in the same way that I enjoyed the humorous situations in high fidelity. It was more like…it created its own world: a very quiet and a very still world. It wasn’t necessarily the world that I wanted to be, but it was such a novel experience to be in this other place that I couldn’t stop reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I feel like every time I read a Coetzee novel, I close it and think, “That was amazing” and then have no desire to read another one. He’s someone who lies in wait, quietly, until I need him.

9781849015882Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin – It’s weird to read a classic horror novel, because the novel doesn’t know that it’s a classic. It doesn’t know that even nine year olds know the twist. It thinks it’s revving up for a SHOCKING ending. Both of Ira Levin’s classic novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have this issue to some extent. It’s not possible to read these novels with a blank mind: to read them is, basically, to reread them. But re-reading Rosemary’s Baby is really fun! It’s interesting to see the subtle ways in which the men in Levin’s novels are horrible. I mean, the women are never perfect. In fact, one gets the impression that they’re no better, morally, than the men. Rosemary is petty and a schemer and for much of the beginning of the novel she lies to her husband about her ovarian cycles because she wants to get pregnant (even though he is not so sanguine about having a child). But…because the women are powerless, you sympathize with them. And the men…man…they are horrible. Not all the men. There’s usually a kindly older gent somewhere. But most of the men…my god. It is fascinating to see the simple and subtle ways that they gaslight and manipulate Rosemary. I don’t know why this one made me feel better, but it really did.

elizabeth-costello-jm coetzeeElizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee — I’ve actually had this one for a long time. It is undoubtedly one of the weirder novels I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of essays and speeches that were originally written by Coetzee. Most of them were separately published by non-fiction. But, in this novel, they’re put into the mouth of a tired old writer, Elizabeth Costello, who’s achieved a living legend status somewhat similar to Coetzee’s. She travels around the world, visits relatives and old friend, and delivers speeches on realism and the state of literature and animal rights and love. It is an amazing performance. Once again, I thought this would be the last thing I’d be interested in, but I was completely enraptured. Costello is such a vivid and well-realized character. Her relationships are so complex, and the feelings that people have about her are so delicate. For much of the first part of the book, she’s in the company of her son. And he has such odd, conflicted emotions about her. He realized, late in his life, that his mother was a genius, and, because of that genius, he’s sort of started to forgive her for his childhood. So, yeah, the fiction part is amazing. But what’s really astonishing are the speeches and how they fit in with the fiction. The speeches are, somehow, integral to this book. Each one fleshes out Costello’s character and makes her come alive a little bit more. You get the sense of her playfulness and her integrity and her iconoclasm and her peevishness. And you get some sense of what it means to lead a life of the mind and to put so much of yourself into ideas. It’s really amazing that this novel works at all. The fact that it works well is a tremendous accomplishment.

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – Crime novels would seem to be perfect for a bad mood, but in the last seven days I’ve actually sampled and discarded a ton of them, including a bunch by my favorites: Cain, Thompson, Willeford, Goodis. For some reason, though, Agatha Christie has held my interest. Her novels are so odd. They have so little personality. The characters don’t really pop. Even the settings are just barely sketched-in. But, somehow, those settings really manage to evoke a hazy, mysterious atmosphere. And her plots are rollercoasters. The amount of stuff that happens is simply incredible. I guess this kind of stripped-down book is good for a bad mood. (I’m not done with this one yet, so don’t spoil it! Unlike w/ Roger Ackroyd, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in this one!)