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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Turn the page

I spent yesterday evening talking with a friend about the first draft of his Sherlock Holmes-inspired novel. We had gone over some stuff about adverb nervousness, why the villain drops out of the story part of the way through, and whether the British Library has open stacks. Finally I got to the end of the pages I had dog-eared and asked about the ending: "The final sentence doesn't sound like anything else in the book," I said.

"That's not the final sentence," my friend said. "Are you missing the last page?"


"Wait, you're missing the last page of a mystery novel? You think my villain is cliche, but you're somehow missing the final page of a mystery novel?"

So he e-mailed it to me as we spoke, and indeed many things looked different with a few additional paragraphs.

My mom reads so many mysteries that she often forgets whether she's read them. Sometimes, she reads the last few pages to remind herself... but of course that method of checking has its own perils.

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Anonymous Alice's mom on Thu May 28, 02:47:00 PM:
Alice, it's not quite like that. To find out whether I have read a mystery, I read the beginning few pages and then dip into the middle.

I wouldn't look at the end if I were not sure.

While it is true that I occasionally forget who actually committed the crime(s), the identity of the culprit is not the most important thing in a mystery. What matters is the changed view of the narrative world that we come to as we read.

So I think you need to qualify your 'the ending changes things' view. When order is restored to the narrative world by catching the culprit, a good mystery will suggest that the world is probably a little different than what it seemed at the beginning.

Less orderly, of course, and changed by the criminal's place in that world.

But also just different. The process of living through finding the culprit is what has changed the hero's and our view of the world. You always find out more than just the identity of the culprit and usually more than you wanted to know.

So if, after assuring myself that I have indeed read a particular mystery, I then look to the end to find out who did it, that look is just a refresher to remind myself of how things have changed.

The technicality of who done it is what keeps me reading, but it's oddly peripheral to what makes the mystery interesting.

Blogger Katy on Thu May 28, 03:10:00 PM:
I'm pretty sure the British Library has closed stacks. I just checked, and for what it's worth, they use DDC.

When I took that really awesome course about print culture at UCD, the professor told us a funny story about being sent to the library as a kid to check out romance novels for her aunt. The aunt would make a small pencil mark on a certain page (64, I think) in each book so she would know whether she had read it. When the kids went to the library to get books for her, they had to open each one and check for the pencil mark on that page.