I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries and crime novels lately. By lately, I mean that aside from a smattering of nonfiction and other things, it’s all I’ve read in 2012. It’s partly research – I’ve got an idea for my own book making itself comfortable in my brain for a while now. But reading one book has led to another and another. I get pulled into the stories and the writer’s particular dirty world.
Mostly though, what makes a mystery more than just a puzzle or riddle to solve is the depth of the characters. A great mystery is a study of human nature. Sure, I want to find out who did it (but not too early on). But what I really want is a trip into the strange (or scarily normal) minds and world of the criminal. The more heinous and unimaginable the crime, the more I need to know about the person who committed it and what made them who they are.
During the winter and spring I was reading mostly the classic hard-boiled detectives. Think Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, noir movies with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Titles like The Long Goodbye, Trouble is My Business, and The Glass Key. You knew who was “right” – but even then, no one was really clean. Not the detective. Not the suspects. Definitely not the perpetrator. And yet, you could sorta, kinda understand why everyone did the things they did.
Villains We Love and Villains We Hate
Sometimes, you end up secretly (or not so secretly) rooting for the criminal. One of the books I read several months ago was The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s not giving much away to say that Tom Ripley is a sociopath and a killer. But you don’t start out with that side of him. He’s a regular guy – maybe a bit too eager to be liked, maybe a bit odd, maybe a little bit of a liar. And even though he’s clearly “bad”, let’s all admit it, we are kind of hoping he can stay just one step ahead of the police for just a little bit longer.
More recently I finished reading Savages by Don Winslow, followed by its prequel, Kings of Cool. In both the line between “good” and “bad” is more than blurred – it’s nonexistent. Intentionally. Whichever side you’re on is the good side. And the bad side. Winslow does a great job of making some very bad people seem human, and even sympathetic (Savages more so, in my opinion).
Then I moved on to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. More than any of the others, this one kept me reading past my bedtime. I internally shouted WHAT?! several times, and did it aloud at least once. The writing is brilliant. The story is twisted and sick and kept surprising me. I was writing the reviews in my head already – “Best Mystery Ever!” “Original!” “Twisted and Wonderful!”
And then I got to the last chapter.
I won’t spoil it for whoever hasn’t read it yet but I will say that I felt like I had been betrayed as a reader. I have the ebook version, and when I read the last page I literally went back two chapters and then to the table of contents just to make sure I wasn’t missing pages.
Let me go ahead and say that, as a testament to Flynn’s writing, the rest of the book was so good that I read her other novels anyway: Sharp Objects, which I do think is largely brilliant, despite sort of knowing where it was headed from pretty early on, and Dark Places, which is good but not quite as great as Sharp Objects.
Why do we root for (some) bad guys?
When you read enough murder mysteries, you start to ask yourself this. Around the same time I was thinking about this post, Lindsay Durrenberger wrote “why are we rooting for someone like don draper?” on her blog. Now Don is no serial killer, but he does do a lot of things with women who aren’t his wife that would make him pretty repulsive in real life. Yet we don’t entirely hate him.
I think it’s because these people are written as complex characters, who either somehow fell into their “badness” through circumstances or bad decisions or accidents, or who had something traumatic happen to them, or have some redeeming qualities outside of their creepiness. We either feel sorry for them or sympathize with them, even as we are looking at their actions with disgust. They aren’t a cartoony caricature of evil. We’re maybe hoping they can redeem themselves, even if we know they won’t. They show us our own flaws, magnified by 1000x. Or they show us something about humanity or our society. It’s not that we don’t want them to get what they deserve. But part of us wants them to learn something, or change somehow, because if someone ‘evil’ can turn things around, then hey, humans can’t be that bad, right?
So in thinking about the ending of Gone Girl, I’m back to this: why does it feel so wrong? It’s hard to say without giving away part of the plot, but I think the author does such a good job of fooling us, that in the end we are demanding some kind of payback for this that never comes.
I’m not someone who demands happy endings from books, or for everything to be tied up neatly into a little package and wrapped up with string. I like things to feel realistic and that’s not always real life. But more than any novel I can remember in recent history, I felt sickened by this ending.
We might be fine with “very bad things” happening and even a bad ending for the “good” side. But we still have to feel like the world in general makes some sort of sense, even if that sense is that things aren’t right. The end of Gone Girl made me feel like the world is psychotic, or at the very least, seriously, seriously disturbed. Maybe that was her point, but it didn’t ring true.