Monday, January 25, 2010

On (Not Always) Finishing Mysteries (Two Reviews of Sorts)

Because I was sick the weekend before last, I didn’t feel up to blogging and so didn’t officially sign up for the Mystery Readathon (even though I really wanted to do it). However, I did unofficially participate, finishing one mystery and reading two thirds of another.

The first mystery I read was Too Many Questions (also published under the title Flynn) by Lesley Grant-Adamson. Unfortunately, this was one of those books that I mostly finished just to say I had: I was sick and couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed to pick out another book, plus I was hoping that a satisfying ending would make up for the somewhat lacklustre plot. The story revolves around two main mysteries. First, what happened to private investigator Laura Flynn’s client? Fashion designer Kate Mullery hired Laura to look into a possible business connection and then disappeared without paying her. Second, what happened to Laura’s father, who walked out on her family when she was four? Add to those the odd coincidence that both Laura and Kate were receiving threatening anonymous phone calls. My problems with the book were twofold:
(1) The ways the mysteries connected (or didn’t) seemed contrived and unconvincing, and (2) much of the plot revolved around real estate deals rather than emotional connections between people, so in the end I didn’t really care. I picked up the book because I’d enjoyed The Dangerous Edge by the same author. I recommend reading that one instead.

The second book I started was Until It’s Over by Nicci French and I was immediately engrossed in it. The story is about Astrid Bell, a bicycle courier who lives with six other people in a big house in a somewhat seedy part of London. Astrid is bad luck to the people around her: first she is one of the last people to see her neighbour alive before the woman is found bludgeoned to death, and then she shows up at a wealthy client’s house to pick up a package, only to find the woman murdered.

The set-up of this mystery reminded me of other great mysteries written by UK writers (A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine and The Likeness by Tana French both come to mind) who also mine the creepiness potential of having a group of youngish people who may or may not know each other very well living together in a big house.

[Warning: I reveal something about the structure of the this book in the next paragraph, which is plot-related.]

I don’t know why but it took me a long time to figure out that this was a psychopath / serial killer story. I’ve mentioned before (perhaps ad nauseam) that I don’t enjoy reading such books, but I’ve never explained why. Generally, a good mystery keeps me up half the night and may creep me out a bit but when I’m done reading it, I can close the book and leave that world behind. Unfortunately, psychopaths tend to follow me out of the book, and I get to thinking about the possibility of running into one of these people in real life. (After all, they supposedly make up 1% of the population.) I start to look at the people around me on the subway with suspicion. I feel nervous when walking home alone at night. Mysteries are supposed to be escapist, not to scare me for real. Having said that, when I do stumble into a book inhabited by a psychopath, I generally find it’s better to finish reading the book—that knowing what happens in the end (and in most mysteries, the killer is caught) helps me leave the story behind when I’m done. Until It’s Over has an unusual structure in that two thirds of the way in, the killer is apprehended. (Or is he?) I stopped reading at this point because I realized that part 2 of the book is written from the killer’s point of view. I’m tempted to read the rest—I have this irrational feeling that Astrid remains in danger as long as I don’t finish the book (and it is an engrossing read!). But do I want to delve into the mind of a psychopath? Will it be worth it just to know what happens in the end? I’m not sure.

Have you ever started a mystery and felt like you needed to finish it even though it was either not that interesting or scaring you? What would you do in my shoes?

To read other (less spoilerish) reviews of Until It’s Over, visit these blogs:
Euro CrimeReading Matters

I bought Too Many Questions by Lesley Grant-Adamson. Thank you to Donna at BookBound for giving me Until It’s Over by Nicci French.


  1. Nicci French is actually one of the extremely few authors who I've not finished a book by (wow, awkward sentence!) I don't usually mind the psychopath plots (they stay safely within the pages for me!) but hers are particularly disturbing, in that I think (in my limited experience) that her female characters sometimes end up being as cruel as the male psychos - perhaps the women are supposed to be somehow empowered by violence? My vote: don't finish!

  2. If the book is too disturbing, I say don't finish too. I've had to do that before myself.

  3. Until it's Over sounds really good!!!

  4. I've only read one book by Nicci French and it was really good (though I can't recall the title right now). I do tend to finish books even though I might not like them that much, mysteries included. Don't know why!

  5. I don't think a mystery involving real estate would float my boat either.

    And I'm planning to read both Vine and French (sounds like a law firm!!!) for the first time this year.

  6. I forced myself to finish a Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery, even though it was really bad and not interesting at all. But that was for a book group, so there was some motivation. I'm generally bad about not allowing myself to quit on books, and that's not such a good thing, I think. The Nicci French sounds really good!

  7. Michelle, I read a book last year with a female psychopath and found myself less creeped out by it. I wondered if I was being sexist and just assuming that a female psychopath would be less dangerous. Anyway, thanks for encouraging me not to read this book. It's surprisingly hard to resist!

    Kathy, ditto what I said to Michelle: thanks for encouraging me not to finish it!

    Staci, if you read it, let me know! You can maybe give me a brief synopsis of what happens in the end.

    Donna, I forgot to mention in my review that I got this book from you!

    Jenners, I definitely encourage you to read Vine. In fact, I'm reading one of hers right now (to make up for these two). I won't read Rendell (too scary) -- even though I realize it's the same person -- but her Vine books are great.

    Dorothy, ditto what I said to Staci: let me know if you read it, as I'd like to know what happens in the end. I'm usually pretty good about abandoning books I'm not enjoying; I find it hard to abandon mysteries though, unless I give up really early in the story. I can't help wanting to know what happens!

  8. I would vote for writing your own ending! Definitely I have the same struggle with leaving books half way, but equally definitely feel that some books are not meant to be perused by my eyes. There is too much good stuff out there to spend the time on something that will live in you like a worm! (And I don't read mysteries at all, creepy or not!)

  9. Brogan, reading mysteries always feels a bit dangerous because I don't like the creepy ones (but I also don't like most cosies, as I tend to find them too unrealistic). And yet good ones are so much fun to read! But yeah, this one fits the category of "not meant to be perused by my eyes," despite the fact that it was engrossing. Ah well.

  10. Until It's Over sounds really good! I do love mysteries. Mysteries and handsome private investigators - could read them all day long.

    Thanks for the reviews!