Five famous Novels you probably never thought of as mysteries…
After my novel, The Winter in Anna, came out this January, I was somewhat surprised to see some of the reviews refer to it as a kind of mystery. I hadn’t really thought of the story in those terms. In fact, by telling you what finally happens to the central character, Anna, in the opening paragraph, I thought I had taken the opposite tack. But answering one question can create another, in this case, replacing what with why, and I realized that on one level, the reviewers were right.
This got me to thinking about the many ways in which a novel can have a mystery at its center, ways that go beyond the “who did it?” or “how did they do it?” questions that often occupy traditional works in the genre. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that so many novels not normally considered this way can be thought of as mysteries: we read them searching for an answer to one central question or another, whether that question lies in the plot or the interior workings of a character’s mind or simply the strange angle the author takes on life.
With that in mind, here are five famous novels you might not have thought of as mysteries that, with a slight squint and cock of your head, seem like they qualify:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book voted the greatest American novel of the 20th century, most often viewed as a tragic romance, has a mystery at its heart: who is Jay Gatsby? The genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald is that he turns this mystery into an exploration of something larger: the role of self-invention in the American character, and the difficulty of escaping our past amid that self-invention. In doing so, Fitzgerald makes his short novel about one Prohibition-era gangster from North Dakota and turns it into a meditation on the driving forces of a nation.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Is there any greater mystery than the question of how a man loses his soul? Marlowe’s journey down the river toward the ruined, monstrous man that Kurtz has become unfolds as a mystery story in a straightforward sense: we wait to learn what happened to Kurtz, but the interior journey of Kurtz into darkness is the far greater mystery, and the one that gives Joseph Conrad’s novel its enduring power.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. If you’re not familiar with the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, you really need to check him out. Much of his work could, rather simplistically, be described as contemporary surrealism, but this slim novel, the one that first made him famous, is a realistic work that revolves around the suicide of a young man named Kizuki and the struggle of his close friends to understand what happened to him and what is happening to them in the aftermath of his death. These are mysteries without easy answers, but all the more profound for that reason.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel, while highly acclaimed, has not yet been granted a place in the literary pantheon like the others, but it’s a great book, one of my favorite novels that I’ve read in recent years. A fairly straightforward mystery involving the fate of one character exists in the first part of the novel. The reason it makes this list, however, is that the story concerns a more significant mystery about how we define a human being. I can’t say any more without giving away the story. Read the book.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Surely not this book, you say! It’s about a butler remembering his years of service as he goes on a trip to see an old friend, and it’s all laid out in the beginning – where’s the mystery in that? But as Stevens, the butler, travels across England, each encounter along the way spurring memories, it becomes clear he is struggling to come to terms with an unaccountable sense of loss that accompanies the choices he has made in life. Stevens is a mystery to himself, and as the readers travel along with him, we slowly unravel that mystery while watching, heartbroken, as Stevens only dimly apprehends the mistakes he has made, too late, in the end, to make a difference.
Reed Karaim is the author of If Men Were Angels, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his wife and daughter.