Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > An Unsolved Mystery at the Talbot County Free Library
I spent most of this past June dragging around with a bad cold. When I don't feel well, the only kind of literature that works for me is “escape”—and by “escape,” I mean mysteries. Problem is, by this point in my life, I've pretty much memorized the classics. When John Straker's body is found on Dartmoor and Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate, I note the curious incident of the dog in the night before the famous detective. When Col. Protheroe's death in the vicarage is proclaimed a suicide, I want to shout at Inspector Slack to pay attention to Miss Marple's alternative conclusion. And when Lord Peter is certain of the time of death for the bloody corpse found atop Flatiron Rock, I know the truth of the matter will involve the Romanov dynasty.
Which means, alas, the seminal mysteries no longer hold much mystery for me. Same too for the modern classics. I have read every single Virgil Flowers, Jack Reacher, and Hieronymus Bosch novel John Sanford, Lee Child, and Michael Connelly, respectively, have written. Several of them, several times. But hope springs eternal. Every time I hauled my sick and sorry carcass into the library in a vain attempt to stay ahead of the pile of work growing in my in-box, I would reward myself with a quick stroll through the library's fiction section, grabbing any book with a “Mystery” label on it that looked as if it might be an as-yet-undiscovered gem.
And I found one! Sort of.
At first, with its chilling title and village setting, Reservoir 13 seems like any other classical mystery—the voice of its third-person narration detached, almost clinical, describing this, then that, objectively, while leaving any inferences to be derived entirely up to the reader. But however much I enjoy the fly-on-the-wall perspective supplied by such a narrative, a part of me always looks forward to the moment when a protagonist (usually a detective) emerges from the plot to explain the logic in the apparently illogical chain of events described. And here is where Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13 strays so radically from the classical norm, for no matter how much I yearned for that moment, it soon became apparent that no main character was going to appear. I was left awash in an alien world full of people whose motives and histories I did not know, and asked to make sense of it all by myself.
Which, when you think about it, rather resembles the way the real world often feels. Which, in turn, may explain why this novel—uncharacteristically for a mystery—was considered for the Man Booker Prize.
A murder almost assuredly does take place in Reservoir 13 (a young girl goes missing in a way that is suggestive), and you could even tell me enough clues are provided over the course of the book that a particularly astute reader might figure out who did it. But the real, unsolved mystery of the book for me was the fact that it held me so, that despite its lack of a main character or even a classical narrative form, I found myself captivated by the people that populated the story, their lives—like so many lives—simple, aboveboard, and, at the same time, essentially mysterious. When I reached the end of the book, I hadn't a clue who had done it, but I felt as if I could walk into the village local, order a pint of bitters, and be taken for a native by the person sitting next to me when I started talking about people he knew.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think Reservoir 13 is for everyone. My wife (who is one of the most discerning readers I know) gave it up after only 30 pages. But if you go to the library, check the book out, and find you like it, give me a call when you've finished reading it ... and we'll sit down together over something convivial and talk about it like old friends.
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