We do so love the idea of a zoologist sleuth that we included Suzanne F. Kingsmill’s Cordi O’Callaghan on our Canadian literary sleuth list last December. And O’Callaghan is back in a new installment, Dying for Murder, in which her attempt at a relaxing getaway to a research station off the coast of South Carolina leads her into another scene of death and chaos, presenting new mysteries to be solved. It seems that murder and relaxation do not go hand-in-hand.
Or do they?
In this guest post, Kingsmill fills us in on the merits of relaxing with a good thriller.
No murder mystery writer would ever dream of lulling their readers into a total sense of relaxation, or—horrors!—putting them to sleep. Tension, exhilaration, and suspense are the hallmarks of a good mystery. The idea of “relaxing with a good book” is a well-worn one, but a bit of a misnomer for a mystery, where tension should be running high, the reader on the edge of her seat. And then the author does a slam-dunk, ending each chapter with a cliffhanger, so that you definitely can’t turn off the light and go to sleep, even though it’s 2 a.m.
In a good mystery, the reader’s mind is working overtime, matching wits with the author’s, processing the clues, trying to foresee the future and guess the ending. Reading mysteries elicits a gamut of human emotion—anger, suspense, frustration, fear, horror, despair, revulsion—and can cause a racing pulse and heightened tension, all of which are antithetical to relaxing. How many of us have been deep into a mystery late at night when some small, benign noise suddenly intrudes and makes us leap out of our skins, highlighting the fact that we are not exactly relaxed? Or not relaxed at all?
Since I became a murder mystery writer, there is now a bit of a work element to reading a mystery that is not exactly calming, as I try to dissect how the plot was brought together, where the clues are planted, and even note the appearance of typos and grammatical errors.
The relaxing part of a good mystery (and there is a relaxing part!) is that it’s a nice break from the stresses of everyday life, a chance to live in another and exciting world for the length of the book, to live vicariously someone else’s story. In a murder mystery, as in any book, all the problems are someone else’s, and there can be a certain schadenfreude in reading about them and wondering how the protagonist will solve them. No one actually dies, no one actually gets hurt. The story has all been mapped out by the author, usually with a happy ending in the offing. When you encounter a problem or an obstacle to the protagonist you know the author will solve it eventually, so you can just sit back and relax. There is a certain comfort in that.
And yet a murder mystery isn’t all carved in stone. The descriptions the author uses for people, places and things allow readers to conjure up their own unique images, to “own” part of the book, a sort of passive manipulation of the imagination, which is satisfying and can be relaxing. It’s also a worry-free way of meeting new, engaging people without leaving your home, or having to be a host. A good read, well read, relaxes and stimulates at the same time—and this is the lifeblood of an exhilarating mystery!
Suzanne Kingsmill recommends some exhilarating reads to relax with:
The Bear by Canada’s Claire Cameron
Told from the point of view of a six-year-old, The Bear is the story of Anna and her little brother, Stick—two young children forced to fend for themselves in Algonquin Park after a black bear attacks their parents. A gripping and mesmerizing exploration of the child psyche, this is a survival story unlike any other, one that asks what it takes to survive in the wilderness and what happens when predation comes from within.
How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”—Leonard Cohen
Christmas is approaching, and in Québec it’s a time of dazzling snowfalls, bright lights, and gatherings with friends in front of blazing hearths. But shadows are falling on the usually festive season for Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Most of his best agents have left the Homicide Department, his old friend and lieutenant Jean-Guy Beauvoir hasn’t spoken to him in months, and hostile forces are lining up against him. When Gamache receives a message from Myrna Landers that a longtime friend hasn’t arrived for Christmas in the village of Three Pines, he welcomes the chance to get away from the city. As events come to a head, Gamache is drawn ever deeper into the world of Three Pines. Increasingly, he is not only investigating the disappearance of Myrna’s friend but also seeking a safe place for himself and his still-loyal colleagues. Is there peace to be found even in Three Pines, and at what cost to Gamache and the people he holds dear?
The Blue Guitar by Ann Ireland
At the international classical guitar competition in Montreal, top-flight, musicians fly in from all over the world to compete in a gruelling week. A career can be made or lost here, and the slightest mishap—a lapse of memory, a shaking right hand, a broken fingernail—can ruin years of preparation. A decade ago Toby made the finals in a similar competition but suffered a breakdown and is only now venturing back into the fray. Middle-aged Lucy is tired of playing bar mitzvahs and weddings and is determined to perform the recital of her life. Trace is a kayaking teenager from the West Coast who seems careless in her talent. Judges and contestants alike battle and scheme to achieve what they most desire here. There is much more than pretty music being performed on this stage.
Suzanne F. Kingsmill has a B.A. in English literature, a B.Sc. in biology, and a M.Sc. in zoology. She is the author of numerous magazine articles, Forever Dead, Innocent Murderer, and four non-fiction books, Beyond the Call of Duty, Vanishing Wildlife, Endangered Species of the World, Breaking up Solvent and The Family Squeeze. She lives in Toronto.