Elizabeth Kostova debut novel, The Historian, in which a woman embarks on a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler after discovering a cache of old letters in her father’s library, was an immediate success when it came out this year. Here she chooses her top 10 books for a dark winter night.
“I have a penchant for the erudite literary mystery. Over the years, I’ve collected novels that fall into this category – old warhorses and honored contemporaries – to pilfer from for my own story structures – and also simply to enjoy again and again. If there’s a bit of history thrown very accurately in, so much the better. And if you think about it, every novel contains a mystery of some sort – usually “Who are these people and why do they do what they do?” The following are some literary choices that put that mystery front and centre.”
1. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, 1868
Wilkie Collins, along with Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens (see another warhorse, below) is generally acknowledged to be the great-great-grandfather of the modern mystery, but it’s hard to think of many modern mysteries as skillfully shaped and psychologically keen as this one. The story flirts with the conventions of Victorian melodrama, but the characters that people it are truly vivid. Young and beautiful Rachel Verinder inherits one of the greatest jewels on earth – a yellow diamond from India – and when it disappears the suspects range from the Hindu priests who want to return it to its ancient shrine to the butler who sees and hears everything in the Verinder household.
The story is told in no fewer than seven distinct narratives and takes the pleasing form of a collection of documents. I first heard The Moonstone on audio book while stripping wallpaper, and as a result I now remember with intense pleasure every hiss of the steamer, every curl of sticky, nasty flowered trellises. In his original preface, Collins strongly defends his use of the psychological “experiment” that dominates the book’s climax: “I have declined to avail myself of the novelist’s privilege of supposing something which might have happened, and have so shaped the story as to make it grow out of what actually would have happened – which, I beg to inform my readers, is also what actually does happen, in these pages.” He might well have argued the same for the whole psychology of The Moonstone.
2. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, 1860
I know, I know – two by the same author. But what’s a star-struck reader to do? The Woman in White is, if anything, an even more powerful story of human foibles than The Moonstone, although the mystery at its heart is less classic in shape – this is a tale of identity and legacy rather than a strict mystery. When nasty Sir Percival Glyde decides to get his wife’s inheritance a little sooner than later, it’s up to the carefully named Walter Hartright to clear the reputation of the woman he loves. Saying much more than that would give everything away. The figure of the woman in white, glimmering through all these pages, is alternately druid, muse, ghost, and bride. Hartright, as the novel’s main narrator and assembler of the documents that make up the story, is so excessively honorable that he gets a little tiresome at moments, but the various women of the book – in white and otherwise – are wonderfully real. Not to be confused with a current musical production.
3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, 1980 (English translation, 1984)
Most of the western world has read this marvel already, although its progenitor is still alive and well and teaching semiotics at the University of Bologna. The English edition has the supreme advantage of having been translated by William Weaver, and to say that it’s both erudite and suspenseful is a profound understatement. Again, we’re in the realm of documents (the novel itself poses as a document discovered and translated by Eco in 1968). Set in a Franciscan monastery in 1327 among the real, historical, theological upheavals of the church, the story follows Brother William of Baskerville (of course) and his novice-disciple and recorder Adso. They have been charged with the investigation of possible heresies in the monastery (a concept the rational and enlightened Brother William instinctively resists) but become absorbed instead in trying to explain seven very unpleasant deaths among the monks.
The Name of the Rose is endlessly in print not only because of this excellent tale, but also because it breathes genuine passion for history, architecture, and above all for books themselves – and because it’s written with angelic precision. I love best the moment when Adso sees for the first time the carved stone tympanum of the abbey church with its grand Seated One surrounded by complicated heavenly order and its writhing legions of the damned below. A perfect expression of the light and dark in this gorgeous Holmesian novel.
4. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, 1934
This is as far as I’m going to stray into the world of plain old detective fiction, but I simply have to stick it in here. In this classic, Lord Peter Wimsey, dinner-party guest par excellence and hero of 11 of Sayers’ novels, finds himself investigating the murder of an unidentified man in the fen country of East Anglia. As always, Sayers puts together an exceedingly clever puzzle, which only the exceedingly clever Wimsey can tease apart. In this particular work, however, she outdoes herself in the realm of landscape, describing the fens (and their villages and churches) with indelible melancholy, and she also educates the reader in an obscure and ancient art: the medieval change-ringing of church bells. The novel is divided into sections based on particular “changes” (in the same satisfying way that The Name of the Rose is divided into the divine offices of the monastic day). Sayers rings her own changes on the themes of place and history, which weight the book with a special gravity despite Lord Peter’s whimsy.
5. Possession by AS Byatt, 1990
This book has been reviewed so widely, so recently, and with such ferocious praise that I blush to put anything down about it unsupervised, but my copy of it is certainly one of the most pleasantly worn and thumbed on my shelf. Many of Byatt’s novels deal with academia, of course, but in this one she deliberately sets out to conquer the historical mystery as well. Two young academics at interesting odds with each other find themselves piecing together the possible love story of two great (fictional, but hugely convincing) Victorian poets. The mystery of this literary past is couched partly in the poets’ verse (Byatt’s creation), some of which is exquisite in its own right. The novel gives off an eerie sense of real voices drifting in from the past, and at the same time is leavened by a good deal of sly parody of scholarly obsession. As always, Byatt wields beautiful prose, and the mix of prose and poetry gives the book a sensuality as mysterious as anything in the plot. I first read Possession when it came out and (like many other readers) was inspired by it to read the rest of Byatt’s oeuvre to date.
6. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, 1998
Any mystery that begins with a chapter entitled “I Am a Corpse” is bound to be full of eerie voices, and this one is home to a cacophony of them. Pamuk has done more than any writer to date to put Turkey on the shamefully resistant Western literary map, and this exquisite book – “strange” in the best sense – is one of his masterpieces. In 16th-century Istanbul, one of the Sultan’s most gifted book illuminators has been murdered. His death appears to be connected with the Sultan’s commission to illuminate a great book in the style of European painters, but only a careful examination of the unfinished illuminations for the book can explain why he was killed. Along the way to the solution, each of the suspects speaks, a literary device that makes My Name is Red a book to read twice consecutively – once for the mystery these myriad voices present and a second time for sheer enjoyment of Pamuk’s meditations on the meanings of art. Brilliantly visual, the novel evokes its time and place so skillfully that you can feel the snow on a woollen sleeve and touch a painted doorframe, and yet there’s no creaking of historical-novel scenery. I’m already thinking about what a third reading might yield.
7. The Archivist by Martha Cooley, 1998
Cooley’s ostensible topic in this beautiful novel is a sealed collection of letters by TS Eliot, and what they might reveal about a very private man’s private life, but The Archivist is also a riff on poetry, jazz, faith, and above all how we experience (or deny) history – our own and the world’s. The private man who guards those letters, Matthias, is depicted in a first-person narrative worthy of Walker Percy. Matthias’s neatly ordered world is disrupted by a young poet, Roberta, who requests access to the forbidden letters with such passion that her concerns force him into an archive of his own, one he has long avoided. I love the fact that this novel begins with one mystery but ends up solving a different, if related one. The Archivist is also an aching solo on the burdens of history. I read it on a plane, trying not to read too quickly, forgetting what ocean I was crossing and in which decade I was reading, trying not to let the flight attendant see my emotion.
8. Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 1852
“In Bleak House, I purposely dwelt on the romantic side of familiar things,” Dickens writes in his preface to the novel. This staggeringly long work has been called by some his masterpiece, by some the master-novel of the 19th century, and by some the greatest mystery ever written. Many of the “familiar things” he describes in it – coal-smutted London, maidens in long, full skirts, and horse-drawn cabs – have become for us the stuff of period movies and romantic in themselves. Some of Dickens’s familiar things are still thoroughly current, however, including the endless waste of litigation, the deadening dreariness of work in a dreary office, the affection and mutual protection that arise among young people stranded by circumstance.
Bleak House is the story of innocent young Esther Summerson, a lawsuit turned murderous, and a host of suspects whose pasts come to light over the course of nearly a thousand pages. Dickens thickens the brew with a casual movement between past and present tense and between chapters in the third and first person. His descriptions of London inside and out, from slums to mansions, and of his characters’ appearances and mannerisms – often grotesque – are still riveting 150 years after their composition. It seems trivial to call Dickens “erudite,” when his subject was human nature, but his knowledge of that subject was so detailed, so elaborate, that Bleak House reads like an encyclopedia not only of its time and place but of us. I recently began rereading it side by side with Ian McEwan’s Saturday, an oddly resonant combination.
9. The Secret History by Donna Tartt, 1992
This elegant, justly acclaimed novel is one of my favorite examples of why a suspenseful plot and a truly literary style shouldn’t be considered enemies in contemporary fiction; here they are diabolically, beautifully intimate with each other. As are the main characters of The Secret History, a group of students at a small college in Vermont who are drawn together by the teachings of Julian, their charismatic professor of Greek language and literature. The student narrator of the story is a newcomer among them, and when he discovers the Dionysian act the rest of them are trying to hide, he must join in or lose their compelling society. The novel is absolutely brimming with fine prose and insight into human weakness, so that the reader feels downright implicated in the dreadful outcome. Tartt manages also to convey an enormous tension between passion and order, a conflict that boils and rumbles beneath even the most prosaic conversations among her students of Greek. Or perhaps there are no prosaic conversations among them? Or among any group of friends?
10. The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, 2000
I like this novel partly for the sheer inspiration of the concept behind it: in the beautiful, seething Vienna of 1910, a young woman called Dora, a figure inspired by Freud’s best-known patient, is found horribly murdered. Reading this wonderfully visual, sinister novel is like falling at frightening speed into an art nouveau mural. The mystery is a trail of brutal clues, but it’s also shot through with colorful ideas from that time and place – ornate notions about art, psychology, sex, history – and in the middle ground you see the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the approaching storm that will bring it down. The Fig Eater contains passages of such vivid, concrete beauty that I’ve stuck it next to My Name is Red on my bookshelf – two stories of great cities at great moments in history, each told in prose as close-up as embroidery on a jacket.