(As with Koko so with Mystery. This review will ruin your experience of the novel if you read it beforehand. It’s full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. Avert thine eyes accordingly.)
Whenever I’m asked to name a modern novel — written within the last 30 years or so — that qualifies as lasting literature, three come to mind: Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Peter Straub’s Mystery. And if I could chose only one for the honor, it would have to be the last. Mystery is the sort of novel you imagine Cliff Notes for. It’s pristine writing of unerring expression and appreciates in value on each reread. This was my third, and I was savoring the prose more than ever. It’s the Glenlivet of the Blue Rose trilogy (I’d call Koko the snake wine, and The Throat Bacardi 151), a classic that thoroughly deserves retrospection.
The settings are inspired and critical to Mystery‘s success. The main theater is the Caribbean island of Mill Walk, where poor natives live under white elites who care for them like Donald Trump does hurricane victims. The other setting is Eagle Lake, a lakeside residence in Wisconsin where the Mill Walk elite fly to spend their summers. This allows Straub to cast “Milwaukee” in an alternate reality that is both exotic and surreal, which turns out to be perfect for a boy’s coming of age story. Tom Pasmore’s world is criminally real, but filtered through a lens that mutes the ugliness.
As for Pasmore himself, he’s one of the author’s best characters. The story starts with him at 10 years old, running down the streets of a rough neighborhood, getting bullied and then hit by a car, and almost killed. Straub had a near-death car hit like this as a child, and the autobiographical prints show. In recovery Pasmore becomes obsessed with reading (any book he can lay hands on), death, and solving murder mysteries. He soon turns 17; the fast-forwarding stops; and the mystery of Mystery is launched as he becomes mentored by an elderly detective. Together they work on solving two seemingly unrelated murders. One was the sister of a finance minister in present-day 1962. The other was a family friend, Jeanine Thielman, back in 1925. The killer of both is none other than Tom Pasmore’s grandfather: Glendenning Upshaw, the rich tycoon who runs Mill Walk with the police in his back pocket. He is Mystery’s villain, staying mostly off-stage like Koko’s Manny Dengler, though not nearly as obscure.
In Koko the killer’s identity is hard to figure out, and the reader plays detective along with the Vietnam vets. In Mystery we’re immersed in a young detective’s process, and sometimes we’re ahead of him. It’s not hard, for us, to peg Upshaw as the villain when Tom is shot at through his lodge window at Eagle Lake. Upshaw is raging at him over the phone for digging up the past, suddenly calms down and advises Tom to look out the window, at which point a bullet comes smashing through the glass and barely missing him.
The reader will surely recall Upshaw’s decision to send Tom up to Eagle Lake in the first place, back in part five. Tom and his mother were having lunch at his grandfather’s home, and Tom proceeded to royally piss him off by offering the opinion that the finance minister killed his own sister, and the Mill Walk police covered the whole thing up. Upshaw became agitated and belittled Tom, dismissing his theories as stupid and paranoid. Then he suddenly calmed down, and offered Tom help with his future:
Upshaw sampled the soup and looked at Tom again. He was no longer angry. “In a way I’m almost happy you have spoken as you have this morning. It means I’ve come to the right decision (bold mine). I think your horizons need widening.”
“My father said something about your being willing to set me up in business after I get out of college. That’s very generous. I don’t quite know what to say, except thanks. So thank you.”
His grandfather waved this away. “You’re applying to Tulane?”
“Stick with engineering. It’s a foundation. It’ll give you everything you need. If you want to study poetry and the collected works of V.I. Lenin, you can do it in your spare time.”
“I don’t know if I’d be a good engineer,” Tom said.
“Well, just what do you think you’d be good at? Biting the hand that feeds you? Insulting your family? I don’t think Tulane offers degrees in those subjects yet.” He simmered for a while. Tom and Gloria occupied themselves with their soup.
After a moment, his grandfather said, “Have you ever seen Eagle Lake?”
Tom looked up in surprise.
“I’ve been thinking of showing our old lodge a bit of life. How do you think you’d like to spend a month or so at the lake?”
“I’d love to. It would be great.”
“A carefree summer before your hard work begins.”
And then Tom understood — Eagle Lake was a reward for having agreed to major in engineering.
Except it wasn’t. It was his “reward” for making too much noise about the death of Marita Hasselgard, and accusing important people of involvement. On the face of it, Upshaw’s I’ve come to the right decision referred to sending Tom to college. But it really referred to the afterthought — or what seemed like one — about sending him up to the Wisconsin resort. Frankly I was suspicious about Upshaw even at this point, and not just because he’s nasty and unpleasant. (Victor Spitalny was nasty, but he wasn’t Koko’s killer; Upshaw could have been a false lead too.) There’s something subterranean about him that made me guess he was at least complicit in the killings. I didn’t think he would try having his own grandson killed to silence him.
Only when Tom is on the plane back to Mill Walk, and he is discussing the Blue Rose murders of 1950 with Lamont von Heilitz, does he begin allowing himself the truth of his grandfather. The Blue Rose mystery will be the subject of The Throat, but the killings are tangentially relevant here, because one of the Blue Rose victims was a false flag — a victim of Glendenning Upshaw. Doctor Buzz Laing was stabbed and left for dead (though he survived the attack) with the calling card “Blue Rose”. Upshaw had arranged to have him killed and make it look like it was the Blue Rose killer. Von Heilitz doesn’t spell this out; he speaks in vague innuendos and mentions to Tom that his grandfather had arranged a different detective to be assigned to the Blue Rose case — as though this is some kind of hint.
Why did Upshaw want the doctor killed? Later towards the end, Tom calls Buzz Laing, and learns why he was fired from the hospital owned by his grandfather. Laing had called out a colleague for ignoring sexual abuse symptoms in one of his patients:
“One time I brought home the file of one of the patients Boney kept for himself, and I thought I saw some of the classic indications of real trouble, if you see what I mean. Vaginal warts, vaginal bleeding, and a couple of other things that at the time should at least have called for further investigation and were probably an indicator for psychiatric counseling. Do you see what I’m talking about? This was in the woman’s childhood. Really it could only mean one thing. I can’t be more specific, Tom. Anyhow, I said something about it to Boney, and he hit the ceiling. I was out on my ear, and that’s why I don’t have any patients at Shady Mount.”
The patient Laing is describing is Tom’s mother, Gloria Pasmore, though Tom doesn’t realize this yet. He later has a flash of intuition and recalls Laing’s comments as he and Detective Natchez are discussing Upshaw’s non-affairs with young women. Upshaw made a point to be seen in public with women like like Carmen Bishop and Barbara Deane so as to appear a “normal” man with appetites for younger women in their twenties. His true appetites were for prepubescent girls. He abused his daughter Gloria from a very early age, before she was even five, and hers was the patient file Laing saw by accident. Tom suddenly understands why his mother has always been such a mess — her anxieties and depressions and screams in the middle of the night.
Thus the root of the mystery: Jeanine Thielman had discovered that Upshaw was a pedophile and threatened to expose him. Upshaw killed her, up close and personal, unlike most of the dirty work he dumps on hit men, corrupt cops, and self-serving doctors. The Blue Rose case helps Tom solve the mystery in a roundabout way: Buzz Laing, the fake Blue Rose victim, had stumbled on Upshaw’s worst secret.
The Pasmore Pedigree
When Sherlock Holmes is your father and Jeffrey Epstein times ten is your grandfather — that pedigree. It took balls for Straub to use a character like Lamont von Heilitz. He is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show and so of course he’s a caricature; but he works. Had Straub used this figure in the gritty realistic framework of The Throat, the results would have laughable. In the more dreamy atmosphere of Mystery he fits hand in glove. In that sense von Heilitz is like Shadowland’s magician Coleman Collins, an archetype whose credibility depends more on the author’s writing style than the actual narrative.
It’s fitting that Mystery’s pivotal scene is the only one in the novel where Tom’s father and grandfather are both on screen. Tom and von Heilitz sneak onto the Upshaw grounds, and spy on Upshaw through a window as he opens their letters — the anonymous notes they mailed in order to “rattle his cage”. The notes say “I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE”, “YOU HAVE TO BE STOPPED”, which mimic the implied accusations sent by Jeanine Thielman to Upshaw back in 1925, when she learned he was raping his four-year old daughter. As far as Upshaw knows, those notes had been destroyed, but Tom found them hidden at Eagle Lake. Upshaw’s reaction carries mountains of suspense through sheer body language:
Upshaw took up the red envelope. He looked at the handwriting and examined the postmark. Then he slit the envelope open and pulled out the sheet of yellow paper. He unfolded it and read.
Tom held his breath.
His grandfather was motionless for a second; and then, though he did not move, gesture, or change in any way, his body seemed to alter its dimensions, as if beneath the black suit it had suddenly deflated and expanded like a bullfrog’s air sac. He seemed to have drawn all the air in the room into himself. His arms and his back were as rigid as posts.
“And there we are,” von Heilitz said.
Tom’s grandfather whirled sideways in his chair and looked through the window and out across the terrace. Tom’s heart slid up into his throat and stayed there until Upshaw slowly revolved back to the note. He stared at it for another second. Then he pushed the yellow paper to the corner of his desk and picked up the envelope to look at the handwriting and the postmark. He turned his head to make sure the door was closed, and then looked back out the window. He pulled all the rest of the letters toward him and shuffled through them, setting before him on the desk a grey envelope and two white envelopes, set down the others, and held each of the three up to examine the printed address and the postmark. One by one, he slit them open and read the notes. He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment before reading the notes again. He pushed his chair away from the desk, and then stood and moved to the window and looked both right and left with an unconscious furtiveness Tom had never before seen in him.
“He really did kill her,” Tom said.
Few authors can write scenes like this. Upshaw is presumably deducing that von Heilitz is behind these perfidious notes, and sure enough he sends the police to kill him. Von Heilitz’s death is predictable, but only in the way that tragedy always is. Someone has to pay for banging the bee nest. The tragedy is made worse, however, by Tom’s last words to his father. He resented von Heilitz for showing him the truth about his grandfather, and said things he didn’t mean — accusations of abandonment, letting his mother marry an ineffectual man to raise him, and using Tom as a tool to solve his pet crimes. His discovery of his father’s corpse inside the ransacked house is a well earned tear-jerker.
Eagle Lake = Shadowland
It struck me on my reread that Eagle Lake is a replay of Shadowland. A teenager named Tom (Flanagan, Pasmore) goes on a summer retreat at a spectacular place (Shadowland, Eagle Lake) on the arrangement of an elder mentor whose agenda is to kill him (Coleman Collins, Glendenning Upshaw). He has an affair with a girl (Rose Armstrong, Sarah Spence) to the jealousy of the boy she has been with for some time (Del Nightingale, Buddy Redwing). The first Tom suffers trial by crucifixion; the second Tom a trial by fire. The attempt on their lives fail, but someone else is killed (Del Nightingale, Barbara Deane). Shadowland and Eagle Lake become the punishing education grounds where Toms Flanagan and Pasmore learn how the professions they crave can kill them.
The major difference is Shadowland’s high stakes; it’s a complete tragedy. Del is killed (shapechanged by his Uncle Cole into a glass bird), while Tom Flanagan, though able to leave the fairyland (after being crucified), grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. His heartthrob Rose disappears into a water-world, to escape the feeling that she walks on knives. There’s tragedy in Mystery too, as we’ve just seen, when von Heilitz is killed, but Tom Pasmore transcends it and ends up doing well for himself (as we learn in The Throat). If he doesn’t exactly “get his girl”, the final pages at least hint at a friendship with Sarah Spence that will last. Also, Tom Flanagan suffers on a staggering level. His crucifixion is the most unspeakable torture of a teenager I’ve been subjected to in a novel. While Tom Pasmore is almost burned alive (the final attempt on his life by his grandfather), his torments are nothing compared to those of Flanagan. These differences make Shadowland a much darker story than Mystery, and arguably stronger; I’ve said before that it’s the best novel of Straub’s early horror period. But it’s still a close call. They are both extraordinary coming of age stories.
Every time I read Mystery, I wish the Eagle Lake section would last forever. It’s the longest of the eight parts, and the heart the novel, where Tom Pasmore’s vacation becomes ours — his swims in the lake, his clandestine affairs with Sarah Spence, his stand-offs against Redwing bullies, his conversations with people like Kate Redwing and Barbara Deane, and his inquisitive research that almost gets him killed three times. His investigation of Jeanine Thielman’s murder leads to unexpected twists, and we learn about past events in the ’20s through some colorful characters.
Apart from one blunder, Straub keeps his metafiction under control, with none of the confusions and unlikelihoods of Koko. The single exception is the presence of Tim Underhill’s novel The Divided Man. It’s a fictionalized meditation on the Blue Rose killings, which happened in 1950, so that part is fine; but according to Koko and The Throat, Underhill didn’t write the novel until the early ’70s, after his Vietnam service. The Divided Man is an anachronism in a 1962 setting. (It would also mean that Underhill wrote the novel in the late 50s as a teenager, which is rather unlikely.)
It’s hard to overstate how inspired Mystery is. Between its alluring settings and precious character, Straub is able to infuse a coming of age story with his particular style of mystery where the past holds the present in a vise. And he’s actually done even better, as we’ll see in the next retrospective.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5