Mysterious Non-Mysteries by John Goldbach

John Goldbach's new book, The Devil and the Detective, chronicles lead detective Robert James's efforts to solve cases despite a deep lust for drinking, smoking, and philosophizing. Coach House Books, Goldbach's publisher, asks us to imagine "The Big Sleep via Fernando Pessoa, with a side of Buster Keaton" when it comes to contemplating The Devil and the Detective.

Here, Goldbach ruminates about some excellent books not typically thought of as mysteries but that are enigmatic enough that he's basically created a sub-genre for them: mysterious non-mysteries.


Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler: I read this novel shortly after it came out in 1997. It's a beautiful book about love and loss and irrevocable heartbreak, but there’s also the question: Did Barney kill his best friend Boogie? I saw Richler speak about the novel once at U of T and he referred to the murder plot in Barney’s Version as a sort of MacGuffin—and it is, in a sense—but it really does add to this wonderful novel.


Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler: I read this when I was 18 or 19 years old, and like Barney’s Version, it's a great mystery in addition to a lot of other things. Who is Solomon Gursky? Does he exist? Is he alive? The reader asks these questions and becomes obsessed with the elusive Solomon Gursky along with his struggling biographer, Moses Berger, an unrealized talent beaten down by booze and a competitive and jealous father. Solomon Gursky Was Here and Barney’s Version remain two of the greatest Canadian novels I’ve ever read.

fifth business

Fifth Business (and the rest of the Deptford Trilogy), by Robertson Davies: I read it in high school as assigned reading and I was roughly 15 or 16; I had a lot of things on my mind other than books (e.g., girls and electric guitars). But when I started Fifth Business I had to read the rest of the trilogy and I distinctly remember feeling super-charged by the books. Even thinking about them right now makes me want to reread them (it’s been too long). Fifth Business, however, will always remain my favourite of this great and highly mysterious trilogy.  


blind assasin

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: In September of 2000, I was in hospital awaiting surgery for a badly broken elbow, lounging around in a hospital gown with my arm in traction, hitting the PCA (i.e., Patient-Controlled Analgesia) every so often to get my morphine rations. A kind visitor brought me the newly published novel as a gift, knowing I like to read, and I read the book there in my bed and, having not reread it since, it remains a fantastic blur in my mind, a novel-within-a-novel that reads like Henry Miller—and there was some SF writing, too, and a lot of sex and small-town Ontario. And Toronto. The sisters Chase. I’m almost afraid to ever reread this novel because that initial reading experience was so great and weird, given my condition; even now, when I pulled the hardcover from a shelf, it brought me back to those strange and painful and very high times in hospital. But it’s a great mystery! (And for me, still somewhat remains a mystery.)   

Arcanum 17, by André Breton: This is not a novel. Breton isn’t Canadian, either, of course, but a Frenchman and the official founder of surrealism. I include it because in the summer and fall of 1944, Breton composed this profound work while visiting Gaspé, Quebec, with his newfound love, Elisa, after enduring much loss—loss of love (his wife, Jacqueline Lamba, had left him and taken their daughter with her) and loss of country (he was living in exile from Nazi-occupied France). Percé Rock serves as the book’s central metaphor, the impermanence of the seemingly indestructible Thing; this book’s a dream, a poem, a meditation, a beautiful book about loss, war, the occult, the temporariness of life, ecology, etc. It has to be one of the greatest books ever written on Canadian soil. It’s without a doubt one of the best books I’ve ever read—and although it’s not a novel and he’s not Canadian, it takes on the mysteries of life with sublime power.

dear life

Dear Life, by Alice Munro: Pretty much everything I’ve ever read by Alice Munro has a wonderful uncanny feel to it. Whether she’s writing about Scottish ancestors ("The View From Castle Rock") or the shifts in power that occur in love affairs over time (“The Jack Randa Hotel”), there’s always something mysterious about Munro’s stories.


Michael Ondaatje’s plots, too, are often masterfully constructed and executed mysteries, the way they unfold (In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient).

So, in short, I’m having a hard time thinking of a major Canadian novel that (on some level) doesn’t have some sort of mystery at its core. Fiction’s a mysterious art form, so it only makes sense.  

June 6, 2013
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