Helen Currie Foster is the author of Ghost Cave and Ghost Dog, both starring big-city lawyer Alice MacDonald Greer, recent emigre to the Texas Hill Country. Both novels were published in December 2014, and are available at BookPeople. She lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s deeply curious about human history and how, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. Find her on Facebook or at HelenCurrieFoster.com.
One recent evening at a long-running Central Austin book club, discussing Ghost Cave and Ghost Dog, one member said she liked a particular book because: “I figured out who did it and it was all nailed down!” And isn’t that one reason we love murder mysteries? At the end, for just one moment, we see the elusive baddies caught, justice done, and the world temporarily set aright.
So, in much-admired classics, like those of Dorothy Sayers (who can resist Bunter? “He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…”), we expect no ambiguity as to the murderer’s identity. The outcome is thoroughly nailed down. As Peter Wimsey reminds Harriet Vane in Busman’s Honeymoon, “And now we know How, we know Who.”
Yet some authors delight in raising—and leaving—unresolved questions, often for many volumes in a series. If we consider Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo books as classic murder mystery disguised as historical fiction, we realize that at the end finally we learn “who” (no spoiler alert). But we may also see that in earlier volumes, with Dunnett’s wealth of detail, we missed subtle clues as to “how.” Indeed, we didn’t at first even realize we were reading a murder mystery.
The redoubtable Reginald Hill in his wonderful Dalziel-Pascoe series allows a friend of Pascoe’s wife Ellie to live happily for years with an undetected murderer. Moreover, Hill raises uncomfortable doubts for us about one of his most fascinating characters, Franny Roote, who makes his debut in An Advancement of Learning and reappears in Arms and the Women, Dialogues of the Dead, and Death’s Jest Book. Villain? Misunderstood? Genius? Rehabilitated? Murderer? I’m still not sure.
This teases our confidence in our human antennae, which we rely on to tell us who is trustworthy and who is not. We do not just want to know How and Who, we want to know if our antennae could have identified the culprit. We count on our antennae daily—but occasionally we admit someone surprises us. This tension between our drive for order and justice (“all nailed down”) and our recognition that discovering the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about any one person is fraught with difficulty. Perhaps it’s why so many of us are always standing in the mystery section, thumbing through the new arrivals, looking for the next mystery, the next series, the next author’s world we can enter in pursuit of our passion for testing the eternal back-and-forth between certainty and ambiguity.
You can find copies of Ghost Dog and Ghost Cave on our shelves now and via bookpeople.com. Keep an eye out for more guest posts from our favorite mystery authors, especially during the Murderous Month of May!