Hey there! Happy Friday! Liz here, and I’m psyched to have our friend Art Taylor here today. He’s always got something interesting to say! Today he’s talking about books that make you uncomfortable…Take it away, Art!
Come In, Sit Down, Make Yourself… Uncomfortable?
Last week, The Wickeds hosted a holiday edition of “What We’re Reading”—balancing books they got for Christmas against some they still needed to finish reading from 2018.
As I commented, I was in the same boat myself—still about halfway through Tana French’s The Secret Place as the New Year rang in. The book is great, but it’s looong! (I’m still reading it as this post goes up.)
But meanwhile, I also snuck in a book I got from my parents for Christmas—a first edition of Stanley Ellin’s 1972 novel Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, a book that (to be honest) I’d hinted that I wanted.
Ellin is probably my favorite short story writer, but I’ve only read one of his novels, The Eighth Circle, and I wanted to read more. This one caught my attention after reading a post that my friend Martin Edwards wrote about it, part of his series on forgotten books.
The premise of Mirror, Mirror is intriguing: The main character, Peter Hibben, finds in his bathroom “a large, fleshy, terrifyingly lifeless woman on the floor, apparently shot to death by the gun lying beside her.” He recognizes the gun, doesn’t recognize the woman, but as he admits, “trembling, sweaty, nauseating logic tells me that since the lady’s remains repose on my bathroom floor in my own locked, barred, closed-circuit-TV-guarded apartment on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, and since she is semi-clothed in a way that makes it clear she had not simply stepped in off the street, there could have been some connection between us. With emphasis on the physical.”
A locked room mystery then, and as Martin Edwards described it, a “whowasdunin” too. And the book’s structure proves fascinating. As Peter struggles to remember (or admit?) who the victim is and his own role in the death, a fantasy or dream plays out in that bathroom: his therapist and a lawyer (also his ex-wife’s new husband) taking opposing sides in a trial scene, interrogating Peter as well as his family members and others, each new round of questions delving into some new chapter from his past and trying to figure out the truth of what’s happened.
It’s all very cleverly orchestrated—brilliantly so even. The novel includes a lot of sprightly humor, despite that body center stage. And from fairly early on, the book indulges some sexual shenanigans, which seem playful and suggestive and risqué in equal measure.
…until they aren’t anymore.
The book is short, novella-length maybe, and I basically sped through it—spurred on by wondering who the woman was and how this crazy “trial” was going to play out, what turn the plot would take next. Right up to the end, I felt myself pulled further and further along by the twists and revelations, but it eventually went places that left me uncomfortable, I’d even say disturbed. Still, I couldn’t stop reading it, even through the final pages when I found myself stuck with this unpleasant feeling—shocked and sad—a feeling it took me a while to shake.
Despite my admiration of Ellin’s work generally and this novel too in many ways, Mirror, Mirror is not a book I’d necessarily recommend to others—not widely at least and not without caution.
But I’m bringing it up here because I’m curious: Like many of us, I read along a wide spectrum of crime fiction—cozy and traditional, domestic suspense, psychological suspense, thrillers, noir—and as a writer, my own stories sometimes range from light to dark. But I often wonder where the lines are for readers—myself included— and what might compel any of us to cross those lines. So: What novels or stories have you read that drew you in and kept you reading despite some aspect of the book you found uncomfortable or even unpleasant? And did you ultimately regret reading them?
I’m not sure I’ll be adding all answers to my TBR list (!!) but I’m interested to see where the discussion goes! And thanks to Liz for having me on today.
Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won three additional Agatha Awards, the Anthony, two Macavitys, and three consecutive Derringers. His latest story is “English 398: Fiction Workshop” from the July/August 2018 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Find out more at www.arttaylorwriter.com.