100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #002
I Shot My Bridge Partner, by Matthew Granovetter (1989)
Matthew Granovetter is “a professional bridge player, writer, and teacher, who has won three North American Championship titles”.
I have to say that I’m not certain of these publishing details. As best I can tell, the 1st edition of this was a trade paperback from the eponymous Granovetter Press in 1989; possibly in a jacket, which is unusual. The edition you see to the left is the second edition, dated 1999, from Master Point Press. Both publishers specialize in books about bridge (the card game) and generally these are at a level that would be largely incomprehensible to the average home player.
This is the second volume in a series of three mystery novels; this one’s focus is rubber bridge. (The first volume was based in duplicate bridge and the third in team play.) The protagonist — it’s not correct to call him the detective, he’s more like the stupid Watson/narrator — is also named Matthew Granovetter, but it is impossible that these are meant to be taken as biography.
About this book:
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it.
If I were to say that the victim in this mystery was shot while playing bridge in full view of three other people plus a number of spectators (“kibitzers”, in bridge parlance), but that no one was able to see who fired the shot because all the lights were out at the time, you might think that this was the basis for a clever puzzle mystery not entirely unlike John Dickson Carr. You would, of course, be wrong. Extremely wrong.
This is only a mystery because a character in it gets murdered and no one knows who murdered him. What this really is is a sort of annotated textbook on how to play rubber bridge for money, written by someone who I believe has actually done so. The book is stuffed with bridge hands and an accompanying discussion of their bidding and play, based physically in a location that actually exists in the real world, the Mayfair Club (whose function is to facilitate the playing of high-stakes rubber bridge, as you can imagine from the context). The discussion is at a high level, and is quite erudite and intelligent. The mystery content makes Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Machine seem like John Dickson Carr.
The story is told by a young university student whose name is the same as that of the author. I’m being careful to make this distinction because I believe the published antics of this nitwit cannot possibly represent any kind of reality. In fact, I believe if asked, the author would say, “Oh, no, I made it all up to amuse people while they absorbed the bridge lessons.” The protagonist plays bridge with an assortment of “colourful characters”, one of whom is murdered. There is a sub-plot about his educational efforts, another about his efforts to get laid, and a bunch of muddled stuff about a notebook containing observations on bridge games and various people who owe money to each other as a result of bridge games.
In fact, I have to here confess something. This book is so awful, and so defiantly unreadable, that I really have very little idea what it’s about. It seems to be about nothing much at all, frankly. I have to bow to the writer’s mastery of the deep reasoning that can underlie the playing of rubber bridge; he truly does know what he’s talking about. What he apparently knows nothing about is the creation of fiction. That being said, I hope you will understand why I cannot give you much a précis of what happens here. First, as I read this book, it came to a grinding halt every few pages to present a bridge hand and its associated discussion. It’s hard to get your mind back in the game; rather like watching a difficult whodunnit TV programme dependent on tiny inferences that’s interrupted by a commercial every five minutes. Second, the characters are so poorly conceived and presented, their antics are so ludicrous and so deliberately manipulated, that I kept putting the book down and silently praying that they would all be hit by Acme anvils dropping from the sky. These are not even remotely real people and it is impossible to work up any empathy for them regardless of how dire the events of the plot. Third, the story is told in a way that makes it really difficult to follow the plot, because the author keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time — not in the sense of “Twenty years ago, such-and-such happened”, but skipping back and forth almost at random over the period of what seems to be a couple of weeks. I think. It’s hard to tell.
Usually it’s part of my reviewing process to give the book a thorough re-reading before starting the review. Here, I started the review when I was about 20 pages into it, thinking, “Oh, well, I sort of remember reading this book when I got it, I’ll just keep flipping through it to find specific things that illustrate my analysis.” I am ashamed to say that I just could not manage it, and I sincerely apologize. This is execrably, abysmally awful, and I couldn’t manage to read 20 pages at a time without putting the book down. Although once I got out a deck of cards to play out a hand a few times, because I’m not as skilful as the author at hand analysis. I suggest that a novel that encourages you to put itself aside has not grasped the concept properly.
I even read the ending a couple of times, trying to identify whodunnit so that I could try to go back and trace the actual plot from the dreadful muck that surrounded it. It will possibly not surprise you to know that this book is so poorly written that it is not absolutely clear who the murderer truly is. There is a solution which seems acceptable to the police, even though it makes a limited amount of sense. Nothing in this book really makes much sense except the bridge hands. The whole thing is literally unreadable.
One key element of good mysteries is that there is generally a sub-theme that relates to the larger theme, but in a subtle way that is not obvious from the beginning. For instance, to create something from whole cloth, if the main plot theme is the murder of a plagiarist at a university, and there is what appears to be an unconnected theme about the failure of a restaurant business wherein we meet many of the suspects, in some way the theme of plagiarism must relate to the failure of the restaurant by the end of the novel. Perhaps the restaurant is failing because someone has stolen the recipes from another chef but failed to get the details correct. That’s how the mystery should work.
In this book, there is one tiny piece of good work that gives the reader the faint hope that this relation of sub-themes will actually take place. For a class assignment, the student protagonist is reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allan Poe, which proves to begin with a few paragraphs about how good whist players (whist, of course, is the precursor to contract bridge, which was not yet invented when Poe wrote) analyze hands based on the psychology of the opponents as well as mathematics and logic. Great stuff! This is precisely what the author is saying is crucial at rubber bridge, and what should inevitably happen is that psychology should prove to be the distinguishing factor in the solution of the mystery. For instance, someone who habitually overbids might commit a rash, impulsive murder. Where this breaks down is that the author apparently has no idea how human beings think or act away from the bridge table, and cannot depict characters in any degree of realism. It’s as though the author said, “Oh, I’ll make this guy like this, that will be interesting,” without stopping to think about how that character might serve to illustrate a theme of the novel. This book could have been written by consulting a copy of “What shall we name the baby?” and, after a silly name has been selected, three dominant character traits are selected from a bag filled with randomized slips of paper. So-and-so is “stingy”, “irascible” and “doesn’t bathe enough”. Crucially, the author doesn’t make this character play bridge in a “stingy” way, and any idea of thematic relationships is completely beyond his ability. It was, however, nice to find this reference to card-play in Poe, and it’s like a hint of what might have been but could not.
To sum up as best I can: someone is murdered during a bridge game when the lights go out. The characters are unbelievably fake, the plot is ridiculous and chaotic, the writing is muddy and imprecise, and the author does not really understand how mystery novels are supposed to work. It is one of the few mysteries I have ever read where not only did I not care whodunnit, I wanted to go in and kill someone myself — the author.
Why is this so awful?
The history of detective fiction since the 1940s or so has contained a couple of major pathways or channels that are easily recognized by the student or even a frequent reader. One is what I have personally termed the “information mystery”. This is a kind of mystery written by an expert in a field — let’s suggest, at random, glass-blowing. The protagonist will be a glass-blower who has a personal reason to solve a murder that takes place among a group of glass-blowers and their hangers-on. Our protagonist is constantly throwing off little snippets of information about glass-blowing and, almost always, one of these pieces of information is absolutely essential to the solution of the crime. (“Hmm, there was no cadmium powder in the victim’s workshop, but he was blowing a blue vase. Therefore he must have gone next door to Mr. Jones’s workshop to borrow some and …” You know the kind of thing I mean, although I made this up out of whole cloth.) It could even be stretched to say that many police procedurals are a variety of information mystery — it’s merely that the area of expertise is the actual workings of real police officers. But that’s beyond the scope of this discussion.
Information mysteries can be fascinating, but they can also be both boring and illiterate. Think of Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, which is a simple mystery about a jewel robbery that has been padded to great length by the addition of huge indigestible wads of boring information about campanology (bell-ringing). That’s the boring kind. The illiterate kind is exemplified by a review elsewhere on this site of what purports to be an information mystery about interior decoration, Killed by Clutter by Leslie Caine, whose protagonist asserts that shoji screens come from China (http://noah-stewart.com/2012/11/08/killed-by-clutter-by-leslie-caine/).
The fascinating kind are ones in which the information is true — if one actually would need cadmium powder to blow a blue-coloured vase — but parcelled out in such a way that it’s not coming in great indigestible lumps, like The Nine Tailors. In addition, the reader cannot have the sense that the action grinds to a halt every once in a while for a lecture on how pigment is introduced into molten glass, as it were. The information has to be integrated smoothly into the plot. Also, and this is crucial, the plotting and characterization have to be the equivalent of a non-information mystery.
I once remarked in the context of Margaret Atwood’s first science-fiction novel that she seemed to have ignored the stricture that it was customary before writing one to have actually read a couple first. The problem with the information mystery is that someone in possession of a great deal of information about glass-blowing tends to think that the writing of epic passion or psychological accuracy against a background of glass-blowing is a daunting task, but that anyone smart enough to accumulate a wad of glass-blowing knowledge is certainly smart enough to write a mystery without, you know, actually knowing how. Because mysteries are “formula fiction”, and anyone can look up that particular formula, or so they seem to believe. This misconception is responsible for a large number of rubbishy self-published mysteries, and a fair number of one-offs for publishers when it proves impossible to think of more than a single mystery plot whose solution depends on an abstruse point about glass-blowing. (Gillian Farrell’s Alibi for an Actress comes to mind; a great little mystery based on the everyday life of an actress whose follow-up was atrociously unreadable.)
Here’s an important aside. There’s a kind of mystery very closely allied to the information mystery that I call the minority mystery. This is a style of mystery novel whereby the author uses the mystery form to introduce the reader to the workings of a minority group in society. I assert that this form is different, and probably much more important, than the information mystery because it allows minority groups in society to find a voice in fiction. It is no accident that the “lesbian mystery” sub-genre became an important way for lesbians to write about their lives; there’s an entire publishing house, Naiad, that was founded upon the mystery novels of the trail-blazing Katherine V. Forrest about a gay cop. I personally find Walter Mosley just about unreadable, but there is no denying that he and Chester Himes took the “black mystery” and elevated it to the level of literature, while letting people of every skin colour know what it’s like to live in everyday black society in the United States. Someday I’ll write about why The Glory Hole Murders by Tony Fennelly is NOT a minority mystery but a mean-spirited piece of crap, but not today.
Anyway, minority mysteries work differently. Minority mysteries always arise at a time when the publishing world is unwilling to publish mainstream novels based in this minority viewpoint, booksellers uncomfortable about displaying them, and potential readers are not comfortable with buying them. The minority mystery is a kind of literary toehold from which a minority takes its literary voice. The mystery element is less important and can actually be almost simplistic, because the mystery is not really the point of the novel; what’s crucial is that the author has the entree to a part of society that the reader does not, and displays its inner workings. The information mystery, on the other hand, must have the mystery be crucial to the novel — because it’s the possession of that vital piece of information that solves the crime, and if there’s no crime that requires an insider to solve, there’s no novel.
What’s wrong with this particular book, over and above all the complaints I’ve outlined above, is that it purports to be an information mystery but doesn’t actually follow through. One doesn’t really have to know anything about bridge to read this book, even to agree with whomever you decide committed the crime, and that’s absolutely fatal. What this book provides is a huge wad of rubber-bridge theory surrounded with a mystery that is not baffling, but merely incomprehensible because the author doesn’t have the writing skill to make it come alive. It would have been an interesting textbook on how to think at the rubber-bridge table, and that is its only useful or entertaining or informative function.
There is one last serious error of judgment here; this book is illustrated. By “illustrated”, I do not mean the charming drawings of Sidney Paget that accompany the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Nor do I mean that they partake of the practice of a bygone age whereby five or six full-page illustrations are added throughout the book. What has happened here is that someone with a desktop publishing program and access to a large file of computer clip art has selected snippets of illustration and splattered them throughout the book wherever they seem to be marginally relevant. The illustration styles vary wildly but are based in a uniform poverty of artistic inspiration. For the most part, they seem chosen to demonstrate someone’s command of wrapping text around artwork with a desktop publishing program. They cheapen the look of the book immeasurably, they are ugly, poorly-chosen, and break the flow of the book (which was already quite disjointed by poor writing). It’s a way to explain to book designers why one doesn’t do this particular thing, because the results are so dire.
Notes For the Collector:
A Montana bookseller on Abebooks.com will provide you as of this writing with an inscribed copy of the true first edition for US$20 plus shopping. That being said, I’m unable to fathom why an Australian bookseller wants $21.69 for the second edition and a Canadian wants US$103.53 for the first. The cover price of the 2nd edition was $15 US/$20 CDN and I paid $10 CDN for my copy used.
In a small way, I’m a collector of bridge literature and it’s never been tough to get a copy of this book. Mr. Granovetter now lives in Israel, so is unlikely to be signing many copies in North America, but I don’t think his signature is all that collectible. There are today 42 (mostly unsigned) copies available on Abebooks and a number of similarly-priced copies available from Amazon and eBay. I cannot imagine that this book will appreciate at all and, if I have anything to say about it, its price will decline. So unless you are some kind of maniac who must own a copy of every novel ever published whose basis is bridge, there’s no point in laying down a copy of this and it is likely to be cheaper in the future.