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Another verbose quasi-period concoction from the alarmingly prolific Oates--with little of the wit and thematic edge that made A Bloodsmoor Romance a pointed (if labored) diversion. This time, supposedly, the detective-mystery form is being tackled, parodied, and Oates-ified; in fact, however, the three long episodes here are gothics, not mysteries, with little suspense and less detection; and, while the exaggerated, ornate narration in Bloodsmoor Romance suited the genre at hand, a similar style in these "Mysteries"--circa 1890-1910--seems arbitrary and anachronistic. In "The Virgin in the Rose-Bower," Abigail Whimbrel goes mad while visiting her cousin Georgina Kilgarvan, spinster-mistress of Glen Mawr manor: Abigail's baby is found dead, much of the corpse "eaten away." Other brutal deaths occur in the neighborhood. And while the local authorities blame this mayhem on rats or vagrants, Georgina's 16-year-old cousin Xavier Kilgarvan pokes around (think Hardy Boys, not Hercule Poirot)--helping to uncover a slew of standard family/sexual secrets while falling in breathy love with Georgina's young half-sister Perdita. In the second novella, "Devil's Half-Acre," super-handsome Xavier is now 28, a famous detective who returns to Winterthurn to investigate a series of molestation-murders--which have been blamed on a Jewish factory-manager (who is eventually lynched, thanks in part to a local Klan). So Xavier, drearily noble and faceless throughout, labors to pin the crime on the real aristocrat/culprit (obvious from the start)--but only succeeds in incriminating his own, disturbed brother. (His remorse ruins his renewed romance with Perdita.) And the third episode, "The Blood-stained Bridal Gown," takes place on the eve of WW I--with Perdita's husband the central victim in an adultery-murder: Xavier broods about collective guilt and such; he's depressed by his duels with an again-obvious villain; and there's a limply contrived happy ending--though Xavier gives up detection, which he finds too spiritually burdensome. Despite several pretentious authorial musings on "Mystery," however, there's no real illumination here of the primal forces at work in the detective genre. Instead, there's a replay of familiar Oates preoccupations--erotic repression, kinky fantasies, social hypocrisy--and familiar Oates mannerisms: italics, exclamation points, compulsive parentheses, rhetorical questions. And, though Oates devotees will find her arch, rococo style on lavish display, along with some inventive local details, anyone looking for period mystery--complete with socio-cultural resonances--will do far, far better with such genuine items as Juhan Symons' The Black-heath Poisonings (1979).
Pub Date: Jan. 25th, 1983
ISBN: 0865381208
Page count: 487pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1983


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