Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Detective-ish, Thriller-ish

So, I've been reading a book called The Widow, by Fiona Barton, which I got from Netgalley a while back. And coincidentally today, I ended up listening to Slate's Audio Book Club episode from last year about The Girl on the Train, which I read a while back. It's a good episode (I really like that feature, especially for books I've already read); I have my agreements and disagreements with their points, but it's a good talk.  But there's one interesting point that they make that strikes me as very true of Girl and also of The Widow.

The titular widow is Jean, whose husband has recently died and who is living through a media circus. We also see the reporter who's getting close to her, and the police officer who's investigating the event that made Jean and Glen the target of so much attention. The details unfold gradually, but it's not too spoilery to say that it has to do with the disappearance of a little girl named Bella four years ago.

The observation about Girl that the Slate piece makes is that it doesn't really work like a mystery, nor precisely like a thriller.  In a mystery, you have a detective who, while often tragically flawed, uses skill, intellect and character to uncover the details of what happened. None of these really applied to the main character in that book--it's not about watching her figure things out, it's about watching her stumble around. But it's not quite a thriller, either, because most of the "what will happen" we know the answer to--the question is more of a mystery's "how did it happen?" So the book is somewhere between a very slow thriller and a lumbering, semi-backwards detective novel.

This conversation immediately made me think of The Widow. And I know that sounds really pejorative, like criticism, but I think it's just a genre I don't have a name for (or maybe it's just a thriller).  The Passenger was sort of like this, too.  You have two parallel stories, one in the past and one in the present.  The present one is very much fallout of the past one, and the present is happening as the details of the past are revealed.  Usually--as in The Widow--the characters mostly know the details (though only Jean knows the whole story) and it's the slow tease of revelation for us as the readers--kind of a reverse dramatic irony.

I'm not completely sold on a story where the tension comes from a secret that's being kept from the reader.  It very much requires me to trust the author that the secret is a good one, since the secret itself is important; in a more standard structure, the secret is only part of the tension, and how the characters will react to it brings its own question.  But here, the characters know the secret, so we're watching layers of characterization being revealed, not watching character development happen.  It's an entirely different experience, I think, and a more precarious one.

At this point in The Widow (almost halfway), I have a theory about the whole thing. That's often true, but here's the thing--in a book like this, if I'm right about the theory, the book has failed.  If what I've "figured out" is really what happened (and I won't spoil it), then the author has not successfully concealed enough from me, and the slow unfolding will just be a kind of waste of my time. 

I suspect I'm wrong, though, because I feel like the indicators that are pointing me in this direction are far too clear. There is no way this is me being a perceptive reader; some of my expectations are clearly red herrings. I guess you could see those as two different ways to get off track--either make the answers to obvious, or make the red herring too obviously false.

This review won't post before I finish the book, so I'll probably follow up with at least an update about whether I was right.  I really think that this is the kind of thing that the story hinges on--how subtle is the author being in her misdirections? The hints that seem to be dropping so heavily--are they really hints, or are they sending me off on wild goose chases?

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