16 May 2006

Dreams come true on Blue Balliett

What is Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer, billed as a mystery set in contemporary Chicago, doing on a blog about fantasy? Because I don't think it's a mystery at all. It's a fantasy in the guise of a mystery, and as such less than fully satisfying on both counts.

Adam Liptak, national legal correspondent for the New York Times, provided a perceptive comment about this in the latest NYT Book Review. He was reviewing Balliett's sequel, The Wright 3, but the words apply equally to the first book: "at crucial moments, the novel relies not on the clues and patterns it has worked so hard to plant but on happenstance and suggestions of the supernatural."

In Chasing Vermeer the kid "detectives" make decisions based on dreams, wild assumptions, and reading pentominoes like tea leaves. That's not how Sherlock Holmes or Encyclopedia Brown work. But relying on instinct and faith in unseen forces holding the universe together is how Ged, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker work.

In a workshop at last month's SCBWI New England conference, I used the opening of Chasing Vermeer as an example of omniscient narration: the narrative voice tells us what no single character can know. That voice is appropriate for a world in which all facts seem to be connected and knowable supernaturally. But the mystery genre rests on what is not known, and on characters finding that out through reason instead of wishfulness.


Tegan said...

It is a rather strange book, to be calling itself a mystery. You seem to have hit on why it isn't very satisfying in some ways, and immensely more satisfying in others.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. As I think further, I wonder if fantasy reassures us good can/will defeat evil because that's how the universe is structured while mystery reassures us that good can/will defeat evil because rational thought can pierce any puzzle.

fusenumber8 said...

I was at a children's literature dinner the other night when someone pinpointed the book's flaws beautifully:

"I like to read books where the kids find the clues. Not books where the clues find the kids".