It’s my birthday today and, as I explained last year, it’s a personal tradition to read a book I’ve never got around to reading for one reason or another. This year I consciously saved something until today. “Mystery, Inc” by Joyce Carol Oates was published in July this year as a standalone short story by Head of Zeus Books and part of Mysterious Press’ ‘Bibliomysteries’ series. Anyone who is familiar with the bulk of Oates’ writing knows she has a predilection for the macabre and a fascinating engagement with the tradition of gothic literature. This is most evident in her "gothic series" of five novels which first begins with "Bellefleur," but also in many of her short stories and the many novels she's written under pseudonyms.
I can’t imagine a better story to have saved as a special treat. This book is a fantastically-enjoyable and hypnotically-narrated short crime story. It’s also a bibliophile’s dream as it centres on a beautiful old New England bookstore and includes exhaustive lists of special editions of books that are discussed with reverence: “signed first editions by John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and S.S. Van Dine… 1888 first edition of A Study in Scarlet… first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles…Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (priced at $75,000), signed by Dickens in his strong, assured hand, in ink that has scarcely faded!” The narrator greedily wishes to obtain these volumes himself and plays with the idea of stealing them. So surprising to read in a book someone recalling with wistful feeling the thrilling rush of shoplifting in a bookshop: “Ah, those days before security cameras!” But the narrator has visited the bookstore while wearing a disguise with the much more sinister intent of poisoning the owner so that he can eventually acquire the shop himself to add to his growing chain of mystery bookshops. The story is sumptuously detailed in its descriptions of the shop, books and artworks displayed. It provoked strong feelings of warm-hearted nostalgia in me as what reader hasn’t felt the pleasure of perusing the shelves of bookstores and all the treasures they contain?
As the plot thickens, the tension rises while the narrator talks with the gregarious owner Aaron Neuhaus over mugs of cappuccino. There is a kinship between the men, but at the same time the narrator sees himself as a predator intent on disposing of Neuhaus to take his business and he even imagines himself taking Neuhaus’ wife! He’s threatened by Neuhaus’ success, particularly the lucrative online bookselling he does. However, Neuhaus has less interest in the business side of things and is more a passionate reader who has a philosophical interest in the genre of mystery. He states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”
The tale turns as Neuhaus describes the history of his bookshop and the various ill-fates of the previous owners by tunnelling backwards in time like a ghost story about a cursed house. There is a shift in control as the narrator listens and it’s as if the predator has become the prey. The story ends in such a fascinatingly ambiguous way that left me unsettled and feeling a rush of wonder. This short story is in some ways like a compressed variation of the wonderful book-length thriller “Jack of Spades” which Oates published earlier this year. Anyone who is thrilled by this story will want to read this longer novel. It was such a joy reading "Mystery Inc" early this morning in my so-called "book nook" at the back of my apartment while drinking tea and listening to the airplanes somewhere over London humming by.
It felt so perfect and pleasurable reading Oates' story this morning that I felt connected to something greater. Not a higher intellectual or spiritual plane but that common ground of sharing a good story thrillingly told, taking part in that agreement between author and reader to indulge in a fantasy which plays upon the deepest murmurings of the subconscious. Like many people, I've encountered some difficult times in my life so I'm grateful for the peace offered by this solitude to read, participate in such enjoyable fiction and reflect.
Tonight I’m looking forward to seeing Sufjan Stevens perform at the Royal Festival Hall and having some dim sum with friends beforehand. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with me over the past year to discuss books and suggested more things to read.