Yesterday I read what was to me a deeply unsatisfying mystery from an author I generally enjoy but one whose worldview differences occasionally lead me to not appreciate her works as much as one might expect given the technical skill of their creation. Sometimes, though, reading a mystery that does not satisfy can help to greatly illuminate what sort of mystery is far more satisfying. Sometimes understanding what is negative can help to shed a light on what makes the difference between a genre piece that works for a reader and what does not, even given the fact that mystery novels, like all genres, offer certain conventions that a writer must work within. Similarly, I finished reading a novel today that dissatisfied me from a different writer in a different genre, but which is also illuminating for the same reasons. Why is it that these popular works do not satisfy me as a reader, and what can be done about it?
Let us first begin by looking at what is particularly unsatisfactory about these two novels I recently finished reading. The first was a mystery novel from a writer whose mystery novel proved to be greatly hostile to marriage and featuring plenty of cases where the author sought to justify adultery as well as the refusal to bring a murderer to justice because he was a friend of one of the main characters. This is not the first time a work from this novelist has featured a murderer who has been uncovered but not brought to justice, but it is a particularly egregious example of the author’s unwillingness to pursue justice. The other novel is a romance novel by an author whose works have become popular despite the fact that her romance plots are driven by couples being forced into marriage after being placed in compromising positions with the strong air of coercion about them. One would think that this would be a crippling liability as a romance writer, in that despite having written a substantial amount of novels that one cannot think of a compelling and non-coercive way to join two people together, but somehow this author is a bestselling one despite this moral blindness.
It is easiest to understand why these novels are dissatisfying when one compares them with satisfying novels. For example, the Brother Cadfael series of novels is immensely satisfying in large part because of the moral framework behind the novels. Cadfael was not himself a perfect person, but he solved mysteries within a framework that included a love for his son, a friendly relationship with the local sheriff, as well as an honorable place within the Benedictine monastery. When the mysteries were solved, with it came some effort at justice as well as mercy, even if that justice was imperfect given the limitations of humanity. Similarly, the Bridgerton novels suffer in comparison to Jane Austen’s novels for a variety of reasons, including the much less graphic sexuality, the use of romantic plot devices that did not include compromising positions and that recognized the lack of knowledge that Jane Austen had of all-male spaces, with the corresponding focus on the relationship of men and women.
Indeed, what both novels I read demonstrate is a certain degree of moral decadence that does not sit well with me as a reader. It does not take a particularly cynical person to understand that the world is not in order as it ought to be, but the world can be made at least somewhat better of a place by the encouragement of proper and decent and heroic behavior. It is not as if these novelists are unaware of such matters–both of them feature people behaving heroically by their own lights in defense of women who are being abused, and if this heroic character was increased to morally decent behavior when it came from restraining one’s own longings and behaving honorably as a husband, much would be improved in these novels. It is a shame, after all, that the general moral decline of society should make it hard for people in our corrupt age to write compelling and moral novels, but it is not too surprising that this should be so. After all, issues of morality and character cannot merely be compartmentalized in one’s behavior, but they seep into one’s visions and imaginations as well, and into one’s creations.