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A New Cheap Mystery Technique in Baldacci’s The Finisher?

Posted in Language, and Literature

I’m a big fan of YA lit, as you may have noticed. I even have a theory about why people look down on YA lit. So, it should come as no surprise that I’m currently listening to another book in the genre: David Baldacci’s The Finisher. It’s M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (or Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Running Out of Time?) mixed with The Hunger Games and actual magic. Which is fun.

However, I can’t decide whether I like one thing about the book. The characters all speak English, except for a small set of words. Instead of “day,”  they say, “light.” Instead of “year,” they say, “session.” Instead of “bag,” they say, “tuck.” Instead of “school,” they say, “learning.” Instead of “child,” they say, “young.” Etc.

None of this is explained, however. The reader has to figure out what is being talked about as she or he goes along. For example, “I woke up the next light and reached into the tuck I had owned for several sessions, starting when I was a young in learning.” (That’s not a line from the book, but you get the idea.)

This turns the text into a puzzle you have to work out. (It is not unlike the experience of reading Heidegger’s Being and Time for the first time.) And puzzles are fun. Furthermore, it makes you think about the words we use, and ask why we use them rather than others which would work as well.

And yet, it feels like a trick. A Cheap Trick, perhaps?

I have a theory about the difference between mysteries, cheap and dear. Cheap mysteries are where the author hides information from you by violating the author’s own narrative conventions. For example, you spend the entire book seeing everything the detective sees, right until the detective sees the final clue. Then suddenly, you get a line like, “And then I saw it, and nothing would ever be the same again.” (The Ocean’s 11 movies used this repeatedly: you let the viewers in on all the details of the heist, except a few key components.)

Something similar is going on in The Finisher. The narrator’s general practice is to present the story in everyday (British) English. Except for a few (apparently ad hoc?) violations of this rule. This creates mystery and is fun, as I’ve said. But it feels like it’s too easy. It feels like a cheap mystery. And maybe the parallels between this mystery-creation technique and the one I discussed in my original post on the issue would justify an extension of the term.

But I’m not sure. And I’m enjoying the book, so I won’t complain too much.


Featured image by Geran de Klerk, who provides it under a CC Zero license.


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