The nature of mystery

One of the things I wanted to talk about earlier this week before the news of the Dagger nominations hit was Stephen King’s THE COLORADO KID. And Patrick Anderson’s take in Monday’s Washington Post — very spoiler-laden, so click at your own risk — seemed like a great jumping-off point. (M.A. Orthofer at the Complete Review also has his own analysis of the book, as does Ed Gorman, Craig McDonald and USA Today’s Carol Memmott.) Essentially, the book uses a mysterious death and its investigation as a means of probing the very nature not only of mystery itself, but how to tell a story. It’s a somewhat risky approach, and it didn’t completely work for me, but the fact that I’m still thinking about it weeks after I finished it is testament to something. At minimum, that King found a way to write a pulp novel that requires much analysis.

That the book is not a conventional mystery is fine, but King’s afterword almost seems to spoonfeed what the reader is supposed to take away from it:

“Mystery is my subject here,” King goes on to say, “…it’s the beauty of the mystery that allows us to live sane as we pilot our fragile bodies through this demolition- derby world.” (That, for me, was the best line in the book.) The author concludes, defensively for such a rich and famous fellow, “But if you tell me I fell down on the job and didn’t tell all of this story there was to tell, I say you’re all wrong.”

In a way, it’s sad that King felt he needed to explain why he chose to tell the story in the way he did. Either you get it, or you don’t, or you are somewhere in between. My reaction wasn’t anywhere near as negative as Anderson’s because I thought it was cool that King wanted to try something a little bit different, and mess with the whole “order out of chaos” requirement that informs much of crime fiction then and now. The problem, I felt, was the approach. Because this is an “as told to” story, I felt cut off and distant — why is this particular mystery so important, and why does it obsess the characters so?

But then again, there are always cases that haunt. I know I have them. Some — like BTK — have been solved. Others, like Cali, may never be. And spending those precious hours wondering why, trying to find solutions, is frustrating and maddening. But it’s also real.

So in the end, I’m still not sure how I feel about THE COLORADO KID. I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts, and also about whether the order-from-chaos ethos must be observed (chaos-from-order is noir, but I’m speaking of chaos breeding more chaos, or a more static approach to storytelling.)

In other words, must crime fiction be fair to be effective?