ince The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell is a clever fellow, I figured a glowing book recommendation from him might be worth checking out. I recently came across a Q&A with him at Oprah.com in which he said his favorite book of 2009 was the historical mystery Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears, and that this British author "might be the best mystery/thriller writer alive." (Gladwell says he reads thrillers and spy novels, among much else, by the hundreds.)
Well, I'm deep into Stone's Fall and Gladwell is right: It's crackling good and Pears, a guy I'd never heard of, is a great talent. (Pears' other books include another historical mystery, the bestselling, and horribly titled, An Instance of the Fingerpost, from 1998.)
And speaking of mysteries, Stone's Fall raises the eternal question: How do some novelists manage to be interesting and engaging right from the first page, and why are others so darn boring? Good characters are, of course, part of the answer, but another element is how extremely effective the first-person point of view is when done well. It's hard, I think, to beat first-person's ability to immediately pull readers into a story, and into a particular mind.
A third-person POV may provide more information, perhaps a broader overview, but its inevitable feeling of distance sometimes puts it at a disadvantage. Pears is so skilled at using his protagonist—journalist-turned-sleuth Matthew Broddock—to narrate the events and background of the novel, in addition to his own role, that I don't miss for a minute a more omniscient POV.
The point recalls some advice the late mystery writer William G. Tapply—well respected for his Brady Coyne mystery series—provided for The Writer's readers in one of his many articles for the magazine. Writing in our March 2007 issue, Bill advised:
The mystery is the sleuth's story. Readers experience it as it happens to her. She takes readers along with her as she investigates. Readers share her fears and loves, her thoughts and suspicions. They see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels. The single-POV mystery novel is as much the reader's detecting experience as the sleuth's.
The single POV, especially in the first person, cements that bond between reader and sleuth, and it's the most foolproof choice for the beginning mystery novelist. Make your sleuth the "I" of the story, put your readers into her head in your story's first sentence, and leave them there all the way to the end. That makes the novel your sleuth's confidential conversation with your readers—which is exactly the kind of experience mystery readers want.
The sense of Matthew Braddock's "confidential conversation" with his readers from the story's start is exactly what Pears provides.
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