My first experience with Peter Straub’s Mystery was in 1990 when it was released. It was a dark time in my life; grad school was kicking my butt, my life was in shambles, and I needed a job so bad it hurt. When I wasn’t job hunting, I turned to books, and found Mystery sitting in the new release section of my local library waiting for me to read. This was before the internet, so we really didn’t have the advance knowledge of new releases like we have now. Since my last reading experience with Straub didn’t work out at the time, but considering his reputation, a new Straub book was a pleasant surprise. I was willing to give him another chance and I began reading it immediately.
For the uninitiated, the story concerns one Tom Pasmore. A resident of a small Caribbean island called Mill Walk, Tom is just a boy when his adventures begin. He lives with his parents, who in turn live in the shadow of his grandfather, the snobby and ultra-conservative Glendenning Upshaw. While venturing outside one day, Tom is chased by some of the local kids and is struck by a car. Tom dies, or perhaps he just believes he dies, and comes back to life only to find himself wrapped up in casts. He spends the next year in the local hospital. His physical therapy is strenuous, but he makes it through with the help of a live-in nurse, and his strange next-door neighbor, the reclusive Lamont von Heilitz. The elderly gentleman has the reputation of being some kind of detective back in the 1930’s, but no one really knows too much about the old man. Lamont brings Tom books to read, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship. Tom learns that von Heilitz really was a detective, perhaps the very inspiration for Lamont Cranston of The Shadow radio show fame. It’s interesting to note that Lamont Cranston was not actually the real name of The Shadow, that was one of his aliases. Several years pass, and Tom begins falling for his friend Sarah Spence, who has grown up to be a beautiful young woman. Young love turns to intrigue when Tom accepts his grandfather’s invitation to stay at the family lodge in Eagle Lake, Wisconsin during the summer, a place where most of the Mill Walk families go to get away from it all. Sarah Spence will be there, as well as her boyfriend, Buddy Redwing, heir to the vast wealth of the Redwing clan, long-time fixtures of Mill Walk society.
To say the mystery in Mystery is labyrinthine is an understatement. Spanning decades with a massive cast, the sheer audacity of telling such a tale requires much time and patience, which are also needed to read such an account of the mystery. Fortunately, Straub places us in the head of the one character with the most to lose, but who is also, at first glance, the most removed from the situation. Setting the story mid-century fits the narrative quite nicely as well. While there is a mystery to be solved, the story is more of a coming-of-age story than a flat-out thriller. At first, Tom is quite pathetic and awkward. He’s quiet and shy and sensitive and all of these things we never expect detectives to be, yet, it is those exact qualities that are needed to solve these crimes. Like his friend von Heilitz, Tom must learn how to become invisible, a shadow on the wall, and to do this, he must discover that the very weaknesses that plague him are the strengths he needs. As Tom becomes more obsessed with the mysteries around him, he changes, becoming a young man of principle. And he grows some backbone, which proves to be beneficial when he decides that to fully become a shadow, he must die once again.
Years ago, whenever I would introduce Straub to a new reader, I often explained that it takes a while to get into a Straub book. “Hang in there,” I’d say, “keep on reading. It’s slow at first, but usually right after the first third of book, POW, he’s going to get you.” Mystery is no exception to that, but probably one of the best examples of why you need to hang in there. Yes, it’s a little slow at first, leisurely even. Straub had a big job of taking a young, inquisitive boy, and turning him into an analytical and principled man, and those kinds of things take time. We have to know the character, live the character, walk a mile in their footsteps, even get hit by a car and die with them. We have to get inside their heads to see the world around them, and once we get to know them, it is then the author can simply lead us by the hand into the dark woods where the light doesn’t shine. And there is a mystery to solve as well. Long buried secrets and shady business deals run through the families of Mill Walk like a bloody river. As we get to know Tom, we find that the mystery itself is personal. Tom digs in deep, making connections, and gets noticed for being nosy. The deeper he digs, the more personal the story, and the more dangerous the stakes. People will do anything to keep their secrets safe, even kill. By the time we get to Eagle Lake, the story runs at a fever pitch. We must know what happens, and Straub doesn’t disappoint. Getting to know Tom Pasmore is one of those rare reading experiences; we see a boy grow up before our eyes while knee-deep in a strange mystery that we must see through to the end.
Though I’m not known for being an emotional guy, I will confess that Mystery is the first book I ever read that made me cry. Tom’s relationship with Sarah, doomed from the start and forbidden by the end, reminded me a lot of something that happened to me just a few years before, so I knew where Tom was coming from. There’s something about forbidden love that cuts to the bone, and Straub captures that feeling expertly in the book. From the first-time Tom has sex with Sarah, all the way to the scene at the end of the book, we are left with a feeling that through his experiences, Tom has become a man, that he has learned what it means to truly love someone, and that there is some kind of hope for a relationship for him and Sarah.
It’s easier to say Mystery is a story about evil rather than horror, and only the Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the heart. Mystery is essential reading for any fan of Peter Straub. Me and my compadre, Benoit Lelievre of Dead End Follies, will continue our Straubathon in May, yet the question remains of the method to Straub’s madness for ‘The Blue Rose’ trilogy. Of course, the plot thickens when we cover The Throat in May. Benoit’s never read it before, so let’s just say he’s in for quite a surprise. Our main question by reading the books in publication order was to see if there was an overall plan by Straub to tell the story this way, or did the books of the trilogy just happen because of questions he had of his own obsessions. Surely there’s some interview out there somewhere that spills the beans on this, but it’s so much fun just to ‘not know’ the truth and let the books tell the story.
Tattered Tomes will return in May with me and Benoit’s profile of The Throat by Peter Straub. Beginning in April, I will be introducing a new recurring column called Tattered Tome Rejects. I’ll be reading books I attempted to read during my formative years that I did not finish. First on the chopping block is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, then Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice in the summer. Until then, keep looking for those Tattered Tomes, and keep reading.