J.'s Reviews > Among the Missing

Among the Missing by Morag Joss
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's review
Sep 04, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery, morag-joss
Read from February 25 to March 11, 2014

Spoiler vibe here.

Funny thing with mysteries. When the writer is no good, there may still be an intriguingly tricky plot. Something they've hit on by mistake, or stolen, or overheard at a Radisson Hotel bar. The book won't be any good, but still, you're getting a 5o-5o return on your wasted time.

With good writers the worst that can happen, really, is that the author may take a wrong step here or there, blow an alibi or a clue, but odds are that's going to be forgettable in a book that is good. The work is solid, the characters, atmosphere, milieu are all okay and you forgive.

The strange thing is that the best a reader can bank on from a good mystery writer is a close call; there is only the hope for a sharpening or refining of the edge that was achieved the last time out. The best hope is for a string of ever-so-slightly-better books, narrowing ever closer to something resembling Life. We're talking murder here, so Life In Extreme Disarray, let us say.

While that sounds like a confining aspect to the genre, with the highest goal a studious or workmanlike repetition of the same elements, it works out not to be so. Or it works out to be a more subtle, nuanced thing than, say, explosive groundbreaking novels of 'real' writers. You know, the recluse ones, whose photos aren't available anywhere, the ones with three names, the Significant ones.

Back in the less-grandiose land of Mystery writers, the tools are different for the various branches (hard-boiled, procedural, manor-house, historical, policier, locked-room, paranormal, etc)-- and the risks of being absolutely pointless run high. At this point in the game, a lot has been explored, a lot mixed and refashioned, so it's hard to find much that is original and not cute or daft.

All of which finds us here, with the very good writer Morag Joss-- who knows how it's done. Put simply it is the dual task of keeping the plotting aligned with the telling, all the while leading the reader down the path. Since there is always going to be that Extreme Disarray we talked about, it is important for the reader to know there is a calm center somewhere, a moral reference point, even if it's a felt thing and not stated or outlined. Joss gets it; her branch is the psychological mystery, and here are some of the tools...

First, of Restraint. In the sense of knowing where to lavish information and where to withhold it; whether from narrator to reader or from character to character, or across time-frames-- it is a difficult target to hit with precision (certainly judging by the squads of mystery writers who don't).

For example, in Among The Missing the author has an illegal foreign couple, who most lesser writers would have milked for the "spirited Chechen partisans" kind of thing, setting the soundtrack on balalaika or whatever. Morag Joss does not; she doesn't see the need to stipulate that, and she's right.

Second, call this one Nuance: there is no highway to hell. The one-way trip to the finale is a Noirist's delight, but the Psych mystery does a little better with a more natural arc. Joss takes a ferocious pleasure in letting the wiggly-waggly, circuitous real-life things take her narrative almost away from her control sometimes. Thus introducing, coincidentally, the feeling of realism. Accidental aspects can then just drift toward that thing that will be unnerving, the Disarray thing, and in the most unnerving of ways.

Third, Balance. Self explanatory; if you're going to play the expectations of the reader like a stradivarius, you must lay the foundations like a set of scales, deliberate and familiar, finding their own level every time. Even the deletions, pauses, and glitches need to fit, find a place, settle into the setup.

Finally, and encompassing all of the above, Poise. In the telling of a commonplace world where there will be a full-on, no-joke disaster, there has to be the ability-- the reader has to sense it-- to navigate the stormy waters along the way. Joss dials it in, beautifully.

What is left is where the spoiler comes to wreak havoc on all this very accomplished dialing-in and fiddling-away and balancing-up. Joss gets to the end and asks herself this question: "Have I built my mystery-castle stone by stone, carefully and stealthily, have I guarded against any imposters or usurpers? What shall I do now that I have everyone assembled on my throne of expectation within?"

She decides the most dramatic closure will come of smashing it all up, opting for a bloody, grand-guignol finale that will please maybe no one, or maybe only the makers of the Hong-Kong action version of this novel. Rather than opting for, dare I say a kind of de-Maupassant-style set of twists and ironies, she gives us splatter-- blood and tears, flesh, afterbirth and agony, at maximum pitch.

Which won't do at all. I would say to Ms Joss that she brought intelligent readers too close to a perfect mystery to end it in horror movie style; I would respectfully note that when it does become a movie, they will change it to their liking anyway, perhaps to something that befits a Reese Witherspoon vehicle...

So really, why not close a well-voiced Bach-style-sonata as, for example, Bach would-- with that final, inevitable, softly harmonic chord, rather than Chaos.
Hollywood will do the chaos anyway.
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Reading Progress

02/25/2014 marked as: currently-reading
03/11/2014 marked as: read

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