May 23rd, 2007


Straubathon: Mystery

Peter Straub's 1990 book Mystery is a stand-alone novel that's also the middle volume in the unofficial Blue Rose trilogy, between 1988's Koko and 1993's The Throat. The Blue Rose case is deep in the background of the story, as is the mystery itself that our college-aged hero, Tom Pasmore, is trying to solve. In fact, I kept waiting for the mystery to kick in as I read about Tom's life and family on the Caribbean island of Mill Walk, and it was only about 100 pages in that I realized I'd been neck deep in the mystery all along.

Straub takes a gamble by setting the crime -- a double murder at the chi-chi Eagle Lake, Wisconsin resort where all the wealthy Mill Walkers summer -- 30 years before Tom's investigation (and by tying those murders into events that took place earlier still). It could be off-putting to readers more accustomed to the immediate thrills of the modern suspense story, but it's Straub's complete mastery of language and characterization that keeps the story compelling. (He's also excellent at giving the reader important clues hidden inside details that don't seem important at all when they're first introduced.)

The highlight of Mystery is the character of Lamont "The Shadow" von Heilitz, a famous, retired amateur detective now living across the street from Tom. Straub told me Lamont is basically Sherlock Holmes, but to me he came off as more than that. He is the Every Detective, from Holmes to Batman to Columbo to Poirot, and when he senses in Tom a kindred spirit and takes him under his wing, it plays out with an almost mythical resonance. Tom isn't Dr. Watson or Robin, though. He's the next von Heilitz. He's being groomed to take the detective's place -- in more ways than one, it turns out, as von Heilitz enrolls Tom to investigate the one crime he never solved, the aforementioned double murders at Eagle Lake.

In the same conversation referenced above, Straub told me at Mystery's heart is a love story. I think he meant Tom and Sarah Spence, the well-drawn love interest who just happens to be dating the son of the wealthiest and (second) most corrupt family on Mill Walk, but looking back on it, I feel it's a kind of love story between Tom and von Heilitz too. Not an erotic one, but one of the kind of deep respect and mentorship we see in many archetypal stories, from Merlin and Arthur to Luke and Obi-Wan.

The solution to the mystery won't be a huge surprise to most readers, but the novel is more about the journey than the resolution (as many of Straub's novels are, I've noticed). There are also some wonderful references to Koko peppered throughout -- Tim Underhill and his novel The Divided Man in particular -- that definitely appeal to the geek in me who loves when authors write stories that take place in the same fictional universe. Apparently Underhill and Tom Pasmore meet in The Throat, and that's got me all geeked out too.

I loved Straub's earlier, more horrific novels, but these mid-career ones that form the Blue Rose trilogy are starting to seem like his real magnum opera.