Not whodunit, but why and how it works.
Ask a professional how great fiction is created, and you will usually receive an answer about the importance of a good plot, descriptive language, and writing “what you know about.” Casey (English/Univ. of Maryland; The Man Who Walked Away, 2014, etc.) goes for something deeper: how do great writers create that alluring kind of bewilderment that makes literary fiction unique? “Mystery in fiction,” she writes, “means taking the reader to that land of Un—uncertainty, unfathomability, unknowing. It’s Kafka’s axe to the frozen seas of our souls. In other words, it will—and it should—mess you up.” Using a variety of compelling examples, the author shows the myriad ways mystery can seduce and conquer. Writers like Isaac Babel create a structure of innocence where readers, along with his young protagonists, reach an epiphany. Mystery can make characters come alive as we learn a character’s secrets; perhaps even more so when we don’t. As the writer Paul Yoon tells Casey, just knowing that one of his characters has an undisclosed secret may be a way of knowing him “more deeply, having caught a glimpse into something so very private.” Mystery can also pull us deep into the lives of terrible people—e.g., the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians—or ones, such as Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in a Castle, whom we’d best avoid. These writers know how to normalize the most brutal or absurd private worlds. There is also imagery—whether it’s poor Hulga’s wooden leg in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” or the multiplicity of windows in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”—that can transform the very environment of the story itself.
For Casey, the search is the thing, whether as a writer or reader. This slim but astute volume is an inducement both to read more deeply and to head for ever more unchartered, frozen, mysterious waters.