Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

A Pocketful of Mysteries

A Pocketful of Mysteries

Miriam R. Kramer

Despite our recent unseasonably warm weather, November will always be a month of shuffling through leaf piles and traveling to the Shenandoah and other mountain destination on leaf-peeping trips. We dig out our scarves and heavy coats to guard against frigid winds and autumn rains. Most of us want to relax before the holiday whirl of travel, parties, and family get-togethers is underway. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, The Likeness by Tana French, and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie are the perfect accompaniment to a hot cup of tea by the fire. This trio of classic suspense novels will give you a respite from hectic reality and take you on a dream trip to Europe as cold rain blows against your windowpanes.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith is a master of psychological suspense. Her clipped, matter-of-fact sentences present one of the most interesting anti-heroes of twentieth-century suspense: Tom Ripley, a small-time crook who dabbles in mail fraud while moving from one shabby apartment to another in New York City. The father of a casual friend, Dickie Greenleaf, offers him a trip to Italy if he will visit Dickie there and persuade him to give up his dilettantish pursuit of becoming an artist to return home and join the family business. Tom, notable only for his lack of notability, takes on this voyage from its inception as a method for metamorphosis. He lies skillfully and pathologically, making up stories about his origins. In the process, he gradually inserts himself into the life of careless, affluent Dickie and his resentful friend, Marge, who jealously guards against Tom’s intrusion into their idyllic Italian life.

Through intertwining himself in Dickie’s life, Tom creates a new persona that he almost believes to be true. Resourceful and completely without scruples, he casts a chilly enchantment on the reader as he pulls off a masterful re-invention of himself that makes us root for him despite his ruthlessness. Rarely have I found myself so drawn in to a character’s psychological journey in a suspense novel. It is rightfully a classic, written in an eerily detached manner that allows us to approach the story on our own terms.

Tana French’s The Likeness is the second in a series of mysteries set in Dublin, with each novel featuring a character briefly mentioned in a previous book. The book begins with a detective, Cassie Maddox, being called in to a murder scene in a small town outside of Dublin. When she arrives, she sees her own deceased doppelganger. Not only could this woman be her twin, but she also carries an ID identifying herself as Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie used when working an undercover case years ago.

To solve the murder and understand this illusive shadow, a version of Alexandra Madison, Cassie dons her old guise, pretending that “Lexie” survived the attack as a way of enticing the murderer to finish the job. Going undercover as an amnesiac Lexie, she “returns from the hospital” to infiltrate Lexie’s tight-knit and cliquish group of grad student friends, who live in a romantic shambles of a country house. As Cassie descends deeper into an identity that had once been nothing but a fictional skin, she also insinuates herself into the lives of Lexie’s provocatively peculiar housemates. French plays with the notion of perception as Cassie finds her view skewing, seeing not only them but also herself in a funhouse mirror.

Most of us believe that we have a double somewhere in the world. Tana French takes this concept and makes it a work of art. She writes so beautifully that any of her novels is an exquisite experience. Along with her gift for creating atmosphere and exploring character, her work is tinged with melancholy and magic, creating a sense of unease hard to pinpoint. In this work she offers a plot that instantly puts the reader inside the narrative, as Cassie puts herself in jeopardy to divine the life of her double.

I read widely in suspense and mystery. Much of the work in those genres is formulaic. French is the opposite, a writer whose complex, gripping body of work aspires to literature, offering the reader a special world that seems rooted in the commonplace while playing with the reader’s subconscious terrors.

Dame Agatha Christie needs no introduction, yet she has her own distinctive skills in creating and presenting a plot that deserve examination. I could have picked almost any of her books, including the captivating And Then There Were None, but here I choose the classic Murder on the Orient Express.

This quick-reading mystery presents the legendary detective Hercule Poirot traveling via train from Istanbul via Trieste, Italy, to Calais, France. Poirot meets an unpleasant businessman, Mr. Samuel Ratchett, who is traveling with his male secretary. Ratchett, who is concerned about his security, offers Poirot the job of protecting him. Poirot turns down the offer because, as he says, “I do not like your face, M. Ratchett.”

When Mr. Ratchett is killed, Poirot discovers that he is really a criminal named Cassetti. He realizes that Cassetti was the kidnapper and murderer of a little girl named Daisy Armstrong, whose prominent American family went to pieces after her death, with her mother dying and her father shooting himself. Having gotten off on a technicality, Cassetti has made his way to Europe, receiving death threats along the way.

When it turns out that no one could have left or entered the train between the times Ratchet/Cassetti was seen alive and discovered dead, Poirot must focus on gathering puzzle pieces to figure out a highly perplexing problem, one that indicates passengers and then discounts them one by one.

Murder on the Orient Express reveals Agatha Christie’s gift for creating suspenseful atmosphere and tricky, tightly plotted narrative. It also highlights her keen ear for dialogue and ability to create realistic everyday connections between characters, with only a few exceptions that play to stereotypes of the 1930s. Here she does so in an exotic setting, as the passengers’ anxiety heightens while Poirot gathers together contradictory evidence. Although she writes simply, reading her prose is like breathing.

While this particular story has been filmed numerous times, the written novel is much more interesting and atmospheric than any tepid, genteel re-run on PBS. If you have not read Christie, or not read her in a while, dip into this short, compelling book that reminds us why she is one of the bestselling authors of all time.

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