Mysteries unsolved

August 28, 2010 § 2 Comments

I could never be you, you sneaky wench

I’m in the midst of reading Elizabeth Peters and Susan Sontag, which is a very odd combination. Recently thrown into the mix is Alan Moore, and this whole book party starts to resemble the ill-fated housewarming fete thrown by Tim and Daisy in Spaced. A motley crew of characters, my books, and it does not help lessen the general confusion in my brain, either –a confusion that has taken root and grown an orchard throughout the month of August.  But I’m sure this will pass.

As for the books, I mainly want to talk about Elizabeth Peters right now, because I wouldn’t know where to even begin with Sontag. I discovered Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries when  I was about 11 or 12, when my sister came back from the States with boxes and boxes of books that were mine for the taking (or rather, borrowing, but we’re sisters – what’s hers should be mine). I loved them. I have not read them in forever, but I loved them at the time. I went through those books like I did a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. Like I still do with a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. I later moved on to Peters’ Vicky Bliss mysteries, of which there are only six.  I remember the Vicky Bliss books as being rip-roaringly fun. I remember enjoying the steamy chemistry between Vicky and her erstwhile lover, art thief and smuggler John Smythe, whose name may or may not be his real one. I remember the mysteries as being pleasantly intellectual (art history being The Thing) and pleasingly tidy.

I felt the need to revisit Vicky Bliss and her erstwhile lover this past week. I don’t have the second book in the series, Street of the Five Moons, or the most recent one, but I needed something to read that was both familiar and vicariously adventurous – sort of in the style of the Famous Five, but less juvenile and badly-written.  Fiction-wise, I’ve been unable to handle any demanding reading this month, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me. So I dove back into the musty half of my bookshelf and dug out the Vicky Bliss books. Except it was not that much fun this time around. The steamy chemistry was more like being stuck in a tiny room filled with stale, humid air with a couple that just wouldn’t shut up. The mysteries put me to sleep – literally. I was astounded. How could something that had such pleasant associations in my memory be so unremittingly underwhelming upon a reread?

This isn’t new, of course, especially with books one has read as a child – the aforementioned Enid Blyton comes to mind. I still have her books, but I often can’t read more than a couple of pages at a time (usually, the descriptions of food involving picnics of tongue sandwiches, packets of chocolate, and lashings of Cola). But I had faith in the Vicky Bliss mysteries because I read them when I was semi-grown up; while still in high school and college, in fact. Perhaps that’s what makes it rather surprising; it’s amazing how much “growing up” a person can do in the space of a year, a month, or even a few hours, but when it comes to our favourite books, films or music from the past it seems almost sacrilegious and somehow inherently wrong to imagine that we would dislike it now simply because we’ve grown up. Or matured, or evolved. Or perhaps even regressed. Favourites should always be favourites; it’s hard to reimagine or reconfigure the like or love that we have for something from the past. It seems necessary that past favourites remain frozen in time, effectively certain and firmly embedded in our personal history. When things like this change, it feels as though the very foundations of the house you’ve built are seemingly made of smoke and air instead of brick and mortar.

That was a long, meandering opening before I got to the heart of the matter, which is: the Vicky Bliss mysteries suffer from a distinct lack of pacing. The books always start off light, and witty, and full of asides and observations by Vicky (a sharply-drawn character, blond and buxom, learned and clever and angry in the most appealing way) and then quite suddenly they devolve into the mystery, which almost feels like being dropped off in medias res in a hasty and awkward attempt at excitement, although it’s not. Peters takes time to elaborately sketch out  the premise of the mystery before it begins, but perhaps her voice (and Vicky’s) is better-suited to the playful meandering instead of the almost banal reporting of facts and events that Vicky usually does once knee-deep in the mystery. Too much exposition, not enough anything else. It’s almost as if Peters, whose academic background is in Egyptology, wants to juggle all her interests in European art history with the academic rigour it requires to present it accurately and with minimal fudging.  One almost wants to tell her: “It’s okay – let go of the facts and the details and just write a fun story… of which you’re more than capable.”

I apologise for this post; I initially set out to write it as a fun romp through the Vicky Bliss books but after reading them it’s clearly no more fun. I want to assure you that I’m not one of those tiresome people who demand FUN out of every damn thing they read, watch, listen, or do, but this post makes me sound like it, so perhaps I am, a little bit.

But I’m also feeling a little sad that comfort reading is a little less comforting these days, especially when I reconsider all the books of yore that I remember loving unreservedly. But mysteries tend to work on a vicarious level; as someone who basically grew up on Nancy Drew but grew up to be someone committed to a soft, comfortable life of safety – preferably in a rocking chair with a cup of coffee – it allows me to feel that I could, if I wanted to, grab a flashlight and explore an abandoned bungalow in the middle of the night, leaving behind the familiar and the routine for a glimpse of how adventures are made and remade. When a mystery fails to do this, it’s almost like the flashlight dying out right when you’ve found the dead body in the cellar. Then it all comes back to you – your actual life, the brightly-lit hallway, and the detritus of a ruined, failed imagination.

That it all comes back to you in the form of books that are no longer what you remembered them to be seems even more depressing. Rereading the Vicky Bliss books was supposed to have cheered me up and instead seems to have made me more morose. And the worst part is: it’s both Elizabeth Peters’ fault and mine.

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