Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Dated Mystery Story

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family discovered a small library sale, and I picked up a few paperback mysteries, including a book of short stories by various authors. On the drive home, I read the first story aloud to my husband while he drove.

Here is the gist of the plot: A young woman returns to the town of her birth and discovers that her identity is not what she thought. Shall I spoil it for you? Turns out that this woman’s (so-called) mother, devastated by the loss of her own child in a housefire, kidnapped her former-employers’ toddler and raised that girl as her own. Thus, our impecunious heroine is really the long-lost heir of an eccentric, wealthy recluse.

The part of the story that feels most dated is the way in which the story resolves. The wealthy recluse lives a sterile, rich life without heart (you know how those rich people are--all furniture polish and no humanity) and has no interest in her child. The daughter she wanted is one raised by herself to be a poised socialite, and the young woman who has appeared is not that person. She offers to pay her to go away. Naturally, our impecunious heroine, who lives on a part time job at a gift shop, disavows all interest in such filthy lucre and returns to her friends in the cash-strapped town. Ultimately, she is given the gift of a rundown but once-beautiful house on a piece of land and accepts it because it came “with no strings attached.” Hurrah for noble principles.

The bare bones of the story could have been presented convincingly. As it is, they fall flat.

Reading it, I was surprised that such a weak tale made it into such a book. Yet I’ve noticed that a simplistic condemnation of the isolated, over-protected, “non-authentic” life of the rich (placed in opposition to a free-hearted, more ethical, more footloose life) does seem to pop up in stories from the 1990’s. During that decade it apparently felt fresh enough to be acceptable without any finesse or real development. Nowadays the writer would have had to do a bit more with such a theme.

Thinking about the story, it helps me understand a bit better why some books do, and others don’t, deserve to become classics. This story feels dated and incomplete today even though other tales from the same decade are still highly readable. Probably that is because they hinge upon the universal human condition instead of whatever social commentary was currently popular. That is something for me to remember with my own fiction writing. I need to restrain myself from trying to share too many opinions, and instead develop my observations. There is a difference.


  1. Lots of good thoughts in your last paragraph. Not that there aren't good thoughts earlier on, but they're summed up in your last paragraph. :)


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