O my goddess, I say to myself, what if I don’t like Rosemary Herbert’s new novel, Front Page Teaser? Well, I am rather well known for my vicious rhetoric when I don’t like something; however, it is a problem here because I have known Ms. Herbert since we were in elementary school together. There is that strong psychic bond of familiarity and sentimental attachment I don’t want to break simply because I am a mystery-novel cretin. I suffer the problem that I rarely ever read mystery or crime novels, and it is a genre I have experienced more through movies than books. While I have read some Dashiell Hammett, I still prefer my Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles rather than my own imaginative rendering of Hammett’s prose. While, for example, I have read Dorothy L. Sayers’ rather elegant lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics, I have never read any of her detective novels she says would warm Aristotle’s soul. Since my childhood excursions into Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe, I tend to read a mystery story when I happen to know someone who has written one. The last one of I read was If Looks Could Kill by my acquaintance Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan and one of the most talented and successful magazine editors in this country. I enjoyed her book very much. Fortunately, I can report that I enjoyed Ms. Hebert’s novel, although I must admit that I am not qualified to say whether she has followed or skillfully broken the conventions of the genre. I just read Front Page Teaser in a way to find what happened and who did and whether it satisfied me or not.
Basically, Front Page Teaser is the story of a young journalist, Liz Higgins, who wants to cover more than feature-fluff and finds herself in the middle of a mystery involving the disappearance of woman. She investigates and is able to solve the mystery in a way that no one else could. Not wanting to spoil anything and truly wanting readers to pick up this novel and read it, I will only say that the plot has ample ways for the reader to go wrong in his guesses. Moreover, the disappearance of the woman involved is apparently tied up with the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 or so it seems, and there is a sinister enough perversion to make the not-easily-spotted villain well motivated to do bad things. As a reader, I don’t work very hard to figure out what is going to happen, because I rather want to be naïve and want to be surprised at what will happen.
Ms. Herbert’s prose is direct and journalistic in a good sense. Consider the following which every reporter would just love to say in a piece, but can’t, not even in a teaser.
“Thanking the detective, Liz made her way to the last cruiser in the line of police cars. Leaning on its trunk, Mick Lichen was haranguing a police officer about getting access to a trio of hikers. Clad in jeans, hiking boots, and fleece jackets in complementary colors, and wearing horrified facial expressions, the family looked like an L.L. Bean ad gone wrong. The red-eyed daughter, who clung to her father, looked to be about fourteen years old.” The novel takes place mostly in New England and this little bit so apt.
She does not let anachronisms intrude in the word flow, which is important when one considers who truly different the world was 10-years-ago. There are a few satiric digs at the media, totally warranted. Dates are given plotted significance, and I found that her most important date, December 18th, to be auspicious as that is my birthday and the birthday of my granddaughter Fiona. Ms. Herbert doesn’t give the reader a Proustian array of roses described within an eternal visual metaphorical perception, but then Mr. Herbert gives us a topiary that suggests something odd. Protagonist leggy Liz Higgins suffers the humilities of dealing with men in the news room who don’t appreciate her abilities and, of course, she triumphs over them. We are, after all, in a post-feminist world now. Ms. Herbert, a 10-year book-review editor at the Boston Herald is not illiterate, and throws in an occasional literary allusion, which sometimes falls a bit flat, because she feels to the need to explain the allusion, which is probably wise considering the general deterioration of literacy in this country, but not for an impatient person like myself. Locations, whether Newton, Windows on the World, or Harvard Square, seem very real and in natural motion. I should note as a matter of irrelevant gossip that in some places, Ms. Herbert has said that he is a single mother. I say just because Ms. Herbert writes a mystery novel doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a woman with a past, even if we find a lot of vivid descriptions of Bean-town bars and pubs in her novel.
When I was young, I loved investigative reporting, especially when going after someone big and important. Liz Higgins is deprived of that fun, and she wants it. What I find interesting about that is how she is able to do an investigation, simply because it falls into her lap and knows a good story when she sees it. The good story goes to someone who is not supposed to get it, but is worthy of it nevertheless. It appears to me that one of the essential parts of any crime novel is that there is an assumption that there is a routine world, a world where things are ordered by convention and habit, that appears safe and secure, and then is suddenly disrupted by something that is either evil or whose unknown shatters the assumptions of the people who normally live out their lives on a liminal border beyond which everything is truly important but not engaged in every day life except when the routine is routed. Suddenly, the world becomes rationalized. Clues appear in a Boston area where there are cats and dogs and December snows. The most mundane of things suddenly take on meaning, as if there is a correspondence between all things that reveal the truth, if one is able to put the correspondences together correctly. Things fall into Charlotte’s Web. It is interesting to me that a mystery becomes clearer once it is given a context where even the wrong clues are followed. Error has purpose in unraveling the knot. In a mystery novel, the very techniques of putting together the mystery are the very reason one reads the novel. Aristotle, as Sayers notes in her 1935 Oxford lecture, is against the episodic form of narration, i.e., without a tight cause and effect relation between things. Ms. Herbert honors Aristotle in keeping the plot unified and with good causes and effects, and while she occasionally jumbles time she does so with good purpose to clarify, rather than confuse or obfuscate. It is a successful illusion that never occurs in real life, which is why we love such thickened plots.
Although Front Page Teaser is not a book of suspense, it has that kind of suspense that comes from enough withholding the information that we need to know what is truly going to happen. We are never in suspense as to whether Liz Higgins will get the answer, and as such the suspense is really in what the solution is. At the same time, however, we learn a lot about the characters and they are not what they seem to be, which is essential for a good novel of this kind. In this novel, there are Arabs, for example, but they are not treated as stereotypical evil guys. They have much more complexity and we find a few surprises about them as well. It is about time that our Arab brethren join the fictional world of good and evil—in genial spirits, of course..
From my anti-blog, people can see what I normally read and it is not this kind of book. But that doesn’t mean that Ms. Herbert’s Front Page Teaser should be ignored in favor to some Pythagorean who keeps all the secrets to himself. Do take the time and read this novel. You should enjoy it.