Book Review : Peter Straub - Mystery (1990)
This is Horror's Bob Pastorella challenged me to a marathon Peter Straub retrospective that would be held over all 2017 in last December. It seemed like a great idea at the time. Straub is a beloved figured in the horror community and somehow convinced Stephen King of all people to co-write a book with him and I thought it was intriguing. I've started my Straub marathon with a review of Koko in January, which was a pleasant yet slightly dated countercultural portrait of the Vietnam war that was 100 pages too long. The follow-up in the Blue Rose Trilogy Mystery is similarly sized and I have rather similar feelings about it. It's a great mystery that is unfortunately dated, so I had to find reasons to like Mystery other than the reason why it was written.
It was awkward, yet ultimately successful.
So, the aptly named Mystery is, indeed, a mystery novel. It doesn't have much common ground with Koko, which lead me to question whether it was supposed to be sort of a prequel at all. It's the story of a child named Tom Pasmore, who almost died after getting hit by a car. The accident scene is quite vivid and gruesome without being tasteless, by the way. I'm pretty sure witnessing a real car accident isn't that far off. Tom becomes obsessed with death afterwards and starts reading on the unsolved crimes in the city of Mill Walk where he resides. Tom is more than obsessed with death. He develops an eerie intimacy with it that alters his perception whether he gets too close to places where tragic events happened. Fortunately for Tom, his mysterious elderly neighbor Lamont Von Heilitz takes him under his wing and together they begin investigating one of the most mysterious crimes in the history of Mill Walk: the murder of Jeanine Thielman.
Tom Pasmore and Lamont Von Heilitz are, in my opinion, the only two characters worth talking about in Mystery. And hat isn't actually Peter Straub's fault. Mystery is a sweeping, ambitious and, for the time, groundbreaking genre novel and like most groundbreaking things, its core concept got perfected and refined over time. It's tough to read a novel like Mystery with earnest enthusiasm in 2017 after having read Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, Gunnar Staalesen or any member of the Scandinavian mystery boom of the easy 2000s. These guys are indebted to Peter Straub like crazy, but they pushed the envelope of what he did in Mystery (the large casts, the buried crime, the crimes hiding other crimes) so far that Straub's novel comes off as meat-and-potatos. Again, not his fault. He started something beautiful. The only criticism I can make is that I was vaguely expecting a supernatural angle to this novel and I was disappointed it was barely alluded to. I don't know if I should blame Straub or myself for that.
So yeah, Tom Pasmore and Lamont Von Heilitz kept me reading for 550 pages NONETHELESS because they remained interesting. To them, crime solving is an intellectual game more than it is a selfless and righteous drive for justice. And it remains so even when the pressure starts building around them and the community of Mill Walk begins circling the wagons. Of course, Pasmore and Von Heilitz feel compelled to do what they do, but their reasons for doing so are what makes them different and refreshing: Tom Pasmore is preternaturally attracted by death and feels a sense of purpose at righting the wrongs of people who are already dead and Lamont Von Heilitz, the mysterious elderly neighbor, made a career out of assisting police forces in tough investigation out of a latent sense of guilt involving his father's legacy. The mystery aspect of Mystery (that's an awkward things to say) is somewhat meet-and-potatos indeed, but the personal stakes for Tom Pasmore and Lamont Von Heilitz are the redeeming grace of the novel. They confront the reaper in their own personal ways and therefore their intellectual agenda supersedes and sense of danger and THAT was really cool.
Not going to lie, Peter Straub's Mystery left me a little lukewarm and the sheer length of it might have something to do with that. Maybe if I read it in 1992 my tune would've been different, but I've read longer, smarter and more involving mysteries than that ever since, thanks to the Scandinavians. Apparently, I'm not the only other Straub reader to feel this way either. There are still reasons to read Mystery in 2017, though. It's perhaps the only "post-death" (for lack of a better word) mystery I can think of that doesn't involve an urban fantasy gimmick of some sort. It features two detective that operate with the quasi-certitude that death is not the end, yet don't know for sure what's on the other side and it brings a perspective to the novel that I've never seen anywhere else. So yeah, two-thirds into the Blue Rose Trilogy, can I tell you whether you should read it or not? It's a huge commitment for any readers (close to 1,800 pages) and the dots are not quite connecting yet, but hey. I'm here and I'm still reading, so draw your own conclusions for now! Stay tuned, I'm going to review the Blue Rose Trilogy's final volume The Throat in May!