One thing I know about mystery novels is that they mystery itself seldom carries the book. A few writers can keep us breathless, anticipating the next plot twist. Most successful mystery writers, however, succeed not only by providing a good mystery, but by building a relationship between reader and protagonist that can develop richly over the course of multiple books. You see what’s coming, but you still want to go along for the ride just to see how the character you’re attached to manages things.
The trick with this kind of novel is that, if the attachment to the protagonist doesn’t happen quickly enough, the reader lacks the sense of personal connection that makes her keep reading. One example of this conundrum is the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (a pseudonym for the recently deceased Barbara Mertz). Initially, Peabody (an amateur Egyptologist) is nothing but irritating—a pre-WWI blue-stocking with a highly elevated sense of her own intelligence and social position. I slogged through the first few novels in the series, grinding my teeth at Peabody’s arrogance, kept going by the ancillary information about early-20th Century Egyptology (Peters/Metz held a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago). And somewhere around book four, I was hooked. I started seeing Peabody in context: in relationships with people she loved and respected, who loved and respected her. Their willingness to see beyond her off-putting exterior allowed me to do the same. And, well, it turned out she is pretty much every bit as smart (but nowhere near as socially sophisticated) as she thinks she is. What was once irritating became amusing, then almost comforting. I loved my time with her and her extended family, who also became occasional narrators as the series progressed. I counted on a new Peabody novel every year or two, and now that Paters/Metz has passed away, I’m mourning the loss of that anticipation.
I relate all this, not just because I’d urge you to read the Peabody mysteries (and I am hereby urging—check them out!), but because I’ve recently read a book that may (or may not) allow me to develop the sort of relationship with the protagonist that keeps me going. In this case, the protagonist is Estelle Ryan’s Genevieve Leonard, a high functioning autist with three doctorates in psychology, great skill in reading body language, and real difficulties in following metaphors and slang.
As an academic who feels emotionally and socially challenged on an almost-daily basis, I delight in the care with which Leonard explains interactions to herself. We sit inside her head, watching her wrestle with terms like “red herring” and with the profound discomfort of sharing a computer screen with another individual. While I don’t feel the character has yet hit her stride (mind you, I’ve only read the middle of the three Genevieve Leonard mysteries), at this point I’m willing to keep reading and see what develops.
The good news is that the first Genevieve Leonard novel, The Gauguin Connection, is currently available for free download on Amazon. You can take her on a first date, so to speak, with no out-of-pocket expense and see if you want to continue the relationship.
As I said, I’ve only read the second book (The Dante Connection) in the three-book series, which also includes The Braque Connection. I suspect that when I go back to the first book, I may find it less engaging simply because—as many other reviews of the series have pointed out—the characters don’t really begin to solidify until book two. But at this point, I have decided I want to go beyond the first date with Leonard. I want to spend more time with, see how she understands herself, see how she understands others, look at my own world from the neuro-nontypical perspective she offers.
My one real complaint about the series at this point is that it needs better editing. I cringed at the regular problems with subject-verb agreement, which seem inappropriate to a character as well-educated and precise as Leonard. I’m hoping that if the series continues the quality of the editing will improve.