It’s Only A Mystery If I Want To Unravel It


I just gave up on a book called Pines by Blake Crouch. It was read by Paul Michael Garcia, who is narrator that I really like–he’s done a number of science fiction novels including several of Heinlein’s that I own.

The writing style was pretty fair, nice description and the language was elegant without getting too flowery. The problem was the story.

See, there’s this guy.  We don’t know who he is.  He doesn’t know who he is.  He’s in some place that looks like an ordinary town but is kind of spooky in an indefinable way. And this guy likes coffee, but he doesn’t have a wallet, so he can’t buy any.  And he’s hurt, but he doesn’t want to go to the hospital for some reason that neither he nor us knows. So he wanders around the empty streets of this vaguely creepy town.

And that’s a far as I got. Because I don’t care what happens next.

I’m supposed to.  I can tell that I am supposed to be on the edge of my seat wanting to know who this mysterious stranger is and why he’s in this creepy town and how he got injured and what makes the town so creepy.

But I don’t. Instead I decided to make up my own story.

The guy’s name is Joe Boat. His wife, Margie Boat, drives up and gives him his medicine, which he forgot that morning, and then he remembers who he is and he goes into his work at the craft store (which is where he left his wallet) and his boss chides him for forgetting to take his medicine that morning, but understands and doesn’t fire him for wandering off on his lunch hour.  After work he goes back home to Margie and thanks her for looking for him when his boss called to say he’d wandered off again.  Then the Boats go to bed and have such great sex that their corgi runs and hides under the couch.  The end.

Now, that is probably not the story that Blake Crouch wanted to tell.  But, you know, if he wanted to tell me a different story, he should have done so.  But he didn’t.  Instead of Joe Boat, Craft Store Clerk, I got… some guy.

And I’m sorry, some guy, but I really don’t care what happens to you.  You’re not my problem, dude.

Now, I love mysteries in fiction.  I love the conventional “whodunit” style as well as the more metaphysical “what’s going on here” thing.  But I need some kind of buy-in before I’ll sit down at the table. If I don’t have any skin in the game I get bored.

This book skipped the ante. Heck, this book skipped the deal.  Instead Mr Crouch just shows me a couple of face down cards and I don’t even know what the game is. Am I winning, am I losing, if I win do I get the door with the new car, or am I stuck with the goat? Tell me why I care what happens next. 

It’s really not rocket surgery. But I’ve seen people drop the ball before the game really begins this way a lot, for example in Wool, which I also gave up on before the author got around to telling me what was going on and why it matters. It’s supposed to be some kind of hook, I think, making the reader keep reading in order to find out the truth.

But you have to prime the pump–or, at least, you have to with me.  I need some reason the care about the character, to want Joe to find his way back to Margie and their adorable corgi. (Edmund.  The corgi’s name is Edmund.  They call him Edmund the Chewer. And they let him sleep on the bed when they’re not having great sex.)

But this some guy? Does he have some girl someplace that I want him to find his way back to?  Some dog, maybe? I don’t know.  And I’m not going to take the time to find out.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to It’s Only A Mystery If I Want To Unravel It

  1. Have you read/listed to any Tana French? I’m a huge fan, read every one of her crime novels. Very character heavy with a hint of the supernatural.

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    Tend to agree. Amnesia, like all tropes, can work really well if it serves the wider goal of interesting characters facing meaningful challenges. But, without at least one of a reason to watch this specific character and a mystery that turns on something the character doesn’t know, it’s just narration of mundane events.

  3. Mike Solyom says:

    Being a big fan of snark I liked your version of the story. But you do bring up an important point about writing. When writing you have to think of yourself as a fisherman trying to reel in your reader. If you don’t get that hook in early on it doesn’t matter how hard you crank the reel or how well polished your boat is. You won’t ever get them.

    I’ve seen many successful writers accomplish this by placing the hook in the first couple lines, or at the very latest somewhere in the first paragraph. I will never understand writers that wait several pages before going for the hook. I also believe its important to add in more hooks throughout the story (like little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter).

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I think of it as starting a conversation. If I was in a bar, and some stranger walked up and started telling me this story, would I sit and listen? Or would I excuse myself and bail?

  4. Sorry for jumping onto this a little late. I’m guessing the Pines book was the basis for a TV show that I watched with my wife, I believe it was called “Wayward Pines”, but I’m not sure. The TV version also took way too long to get to the point, although the setup was a bit better, with a federal agent coming to a small town to look for his partner who’d gone missing there. When the series finally go to the sci-fi twist, it was pretty cool.

    I also had a similar experience with Wool. It had a nice sci-fi reveal, but probably should have been a killer short story instead of a slow, slow, slow book. It was the first book I listened to with a new audio player, and I suspect I might have jumped over a huge portion of it, but it still felt like it took forever.

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