I met the lovely Mary Howard at a writing workshop in West Liberty, IA, last November, and I immediately knew I was meeting a pro. She gave impressive writing advice in the panels, shared encouragement in private chats, and just seemed so altogether poised and intelligent that I immediately marked her down as the kind of woman I want to grow up to be. (There’s still a chance.) I bought her book at the workshop and did the thing where I saved it on my nightstand, hoarding it, so I knew I had a good read waiting for me whenever I want it. I don’t know why I do this—let books I buy age before I read them, like a fine wine. Like I’m letting the anticipation build.
Anyway, I wasn’t disappointed. Howard’s book is a lesson for aspiring writers and a terrific read for anyone who wants one. I’ve never read a literary murder mystery—I wouldn’t call the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley exactly literary, though I do call them delightful—but that’s what Discovering the Body is: a literary novel with a murder at its core, a haunted protagonist, and the lurking question of whether the right person went to jail for the crime. Looming even larger and more softly in the background are the larger questions of greed, love, how we deal with grief, and what we do with the hurts that scar us deeply and the kinds of knowledge we simply do not want to face.
Linda Garbo moved to the small, rural Iowa town of Linden to open an art studio and be near an old friend, Luci Cole. Within the first pages, we learn a few key facts: two years ago, Luci was murdered within days of Linda’s arrival. Her boyfriend, Charlie, was devastated at the time, but recovered when he fell in love with and married Linda, and they now live in the house where Luci died. This leads to some unsettling flashbacks, as Linda was the one who found the body. And now, Linda is being followed, though not by ghosts.
The suspense gripped me from the first page, though not so much in terms of the murder mystery as the sheer elegance of the prose. Howard doesn’t bring in any of the fancy moves that would scream ‘literature!’ at the reader; her prose is balanced, rhythmic, precise, and at times hypnotic. I adored how she managed to layer these sharp little details into soft and gentle sentences, like here:
Every once in a while something of Luci’s will appear in the house—a single earring caught at the back of a drawer, a knot of pantyhose on the floor behind the dryer in the basement, a grocery list in her handwriting curled at the bottom of the potato bin. Just last week I moved a jug of drain cleaner aside under the bathroom sink and found a Q-tip stained with green eye shadow. It’s as if her lost things are rising to the surface one by one to remind me that she was here first (36).
Brr! Haunting. Aside from the larger problem confronting her, which is that Linda isn’t certain anymore that the person she accused of the crime and testified against at the trial is actually the man who murdered her friend, Linda has come to realize that the fall-out from Luci’s death is still drifting quietly around her. The reporter who covered the trial and is in touch with the murderer won’t leave her alone. A man who had contact with Luci in the days before her death is mysteriously back in town. Charlie is dreaming of the horses. And Linda feels a terrible sense of responsibility for all this, a burden that began with her horrific discovery:
When Detective Hansen stepped out of the kitchen door, pulling surgical gloves off with two loud snaps . . . I knew we were in the hands of some terrible evil and that at all costs I must stay in control of myself. So much was going to be up to me (63).
What I like most about the literary murder mystery, as Howard does it, is the disorienting sense that our own perceptions may not always be correct. What we believe may not actually be what happened. What we perceive about our friends may not actually be who they are. And even the people we are closest to, whom we love most of all, can be utter, terrible mysteries. Howard never has to say this; she just touches on the chord, lightly, and lets it linger in the air, as in the deft way she mingles past and present while Linda is working on a copper plate:
The police found a lot of prints in that kitchen: mine on a coffee cup and on the frame of the aluminum screen door, Charlie’s on a fresh apple in a bowl on the table and on the flat surface of the kitchen counter, Peter’s on a glass by the sink as well as on the knife and on Luci’s forearm. There were unidentified prints, from two different individuals. In hot, humid weather, prints can last for weeks. The touch of the hand is like that. Touch can leave a mark forever.
While the writing is lyrical and a complete delight, I have to admit that some of the characters remained stubbornly opaque to me. There was a subplot involving the troubled teen-aged Tess, which turned out to be deeply important to the surface action in ways only revealed at the end, but in the middle, Linda’s relationship with the girl’s worried parents, especially her mother, seemed strained. Linda seemed business-like, even disapproving of Judy, while Judy relied on Linda completely. Everyone around Linda seemed to think she was the softest and cuddliest thing, while those of us inside her head knew from the start that she was made of steel.
The mystery I most longed to have resolved—of Linda’s relationship with Luci—never received enough attention to satisfy me. Linda thought of Luci mostly in terms of Charlie, it seemed; what Charlie had meant to her, what she had meant to him. Even when she finds the mysterious diary that Luci kept and reads it, this doesn’t seem to bring her any closer to her lost friend; Luci, in fact, comes across as odd, difficult, frankly unlikable at times, to the point that one wonders exactly what formed the basis of their friendship. In the house where she died, living with and loving the man who was with Luci before he was with her, it’s surprising to me that Linda wasn’t even more haunted than she turns out to be. But, like I said: steel. With intelligence and an artistic nature to boot.
Learning whodunit is certainly a shocker, but the real joy of the book, for me, is simply in the rhythmic sentences. I was sorry when the book ended because I didn’t have another standing by that I knew would be of the same quality. I can remedy that, though; Howard has a new book out, The Girl With Wings, that continues the tale of Linda and her troubled friends. I can’t wait to get my copy and see what happening in Linden now. And isn’t that what we want out of literature, ultimately? To take us to a different world, and leave us blinking when we return, adjusting our bearings to the new knowledge we’ve gained and the experience we’ve had, all with our feet propped up in our very own bed.