- Mystery of Mourning
Lake Union Publishing
284 Pages; Print, $8.48
The best mystery writers center their whodunits not solely on an isolated act of murder or mayhem, but a larger conundrum that is unlikely to be neatly resolved by the novel's end. For Edgar Allan Poe, that mystery is the human mind, the ideas and deeds it is capable of. For Chester Himes and Walter Mosley, the mystery is race, its meaning and impact. For G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown, the mystery is the meaning and nature of Christian faith. For Raymond Chandler and other noir writers, the mystery is justice, and whether the truly guilty will ever get their proper measure of it. This rule also applies to an offshoot of the mystery genre, the thriller. Try to imagine a John LeCarré thriller without a dilemma over loyalty, who deserves it and who actually gets it, in a world of double agents, career civil servants, and poll-driven politicians. His spies would be far less sympathetic and intriguing without their principles.
For Christine Bell, in her latest novel, Grievance, the mystery is mourning, how should we grieve a loved one in a society where the dead can seemingly live on, thanks to advances in technology. Her protagonist is the widow of an opera singer and mother of two boys who is confronted by signs and signals that someone is unwilling to let her husband
go quietly, if that person is prepared to let him go at all. Bell's observations about the day-to-day work of grieving, of keeping up with work, family, and friends when there seems to be no reason to, are what give her novel a soul. They also provide Bell with an opportunity to display her talent with the language of grief. But in hewing so closely to the requirements of the mystery-thriller genre, Bell's tale rubs up against the comical. This could not have been her intent, with the intricate plotting and sympathetic characterizations that support the book's climax.
Bell takes us through the various stages, or the stasis, of grieving in the mind of Lily Declan. She is neither a spy nor a detective, though the genre's conventions do not demand that she be either. Often times, the person who cuts the Gordian knot of intrigue and scandal is an outsider, able to see what the jaded, or deluded law enforcement officials cannot. But Lily does live in a world of portent; she does not see clues, but hints that some presence of her dead husband is still at work in her life. Des, or Desmond—the name will prove significant later—died of cancer almost a year before the story opens. Yet Lily can't help but look for his hand in her life, either through the "mountain lore" of her Tennessee family or the songs that play on the car radio Des long ago programmed.
Lily's nemesis eventually complains that Lily "wear[s] [her] widowhood like a crown," but Lily is at a loss for how to grieve. Even the skin condition of a woman helping to run Lily's grief support group, the Circle of Compassion, has meaning, even if Lily can't quite grasp what it is. "The best–kept secret of widowdom," Lily is told by a member of the support group, is that "the second year is worse than the first." This is the last thing Lily needs to hear, given all the auguries that haunt her.
Into this very private setting enters a woman who claims to be an old flame of the dead man, though none of Des's friends, family, or associates can remember her. Using an obvious alias, she writes demanding and pitiable condolence letters to Lily and may be behind some disturbing and intimate gifts and incidents that frame the novel's central question: "Who owns the dead? Who owns their memory?" With the Internet and social media, the dead do not stay gone for long. Their images appear on Facebook unbidden. Lily suspects something nefarious as...