Mysteries of Winterthurn
by Joyce Carol Oates
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Her output is so marked by violence that she
even wrote an article with the engaging title
"Why Is Your Writing So Violent?"  A query
to which Joyce Carol Oats responded with
characteristic violence: "The question is
always insulting. The
question is always ig-
norant. The question
is always sexist…."  
But then, in a more
philosophical vein,
Oates added "my
writing isn't usually
explicitly violent, but
deals, most of the
time, with the pheno-
menon of violence
and its aftermath."  
Someone should try
that line in front of a judge and jury some
time.  ("Your honor, it was merely the
phenomenon of violence—and, yes, its
aftermath—that left all those people dead
with bullet holes in them….").  Oates is even
more famous, however, for her prolific
output—more than one hundred books over
the course of five decades, and all without
the benefit of a word processor.   Those who
know Oates merely from her reputation for
prolixity may assume that only a cavalier
approach to composition could result in such
voluminous output, yet her novels are solid
and well written and anything but slapdash.  
For many years, Oates has been mentioned
as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in
literature, but it may be this author’s destiny
to play the part of a contender not a
champion—several times she has also
received nominations for the Pulitzer Prize in
Fiction without yet walking away with the
honor.   But by any measure, her oeuvre
remains weighty, whether measured on a
Toledo scale or an aesthetic one.
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Many contemporary authors have taken delight in
undermining the heroic trappings of the mystery
genre—indeed the concept of the
failed detective
stands out as one of the most over-worked
postmodern literary memes. Yet Joyce Carol Oates
offers a new twist on this familiar figure in her
genre-crossing novel
Mysteries of
, where the downfall
of the celebrated investigator is
hidden beneath the surface of
the story. Whereas a
Sciascia, an Umberto Eco, or a
Friedrich Dürrenmatt have pre-
sented, in compelling terms, the
failed detective straight up, so
to speak, Oates takes on the per-
haps more intriguing task of
serving up failure disguised as
success.   Politicians take note,
this could save your re-election

Oates manages to present a series of mysteries in which
her protagonist, the redoubtable Xavier Kilgarvan,
successfully solves each crime he confronts.  He gets
his man (or woman), but a devilishly bad karma haunts
his every exploit.   He feels the pain in his family
relations, his love life, his standing in the community,
even his health and mental well-being.  Was there ever a
hero more cursed by his success?

Mysteries of Winterthurn opens with a young Xavier
Kilgarvan, a "fresh cheeked lad of sixteen" and still a
student in his home town, as he embarks on his first
case.  The youngster’s head is full of the exploits of
fictional detectives, Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste
Dupin, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Booth
Tarkington's George B. Jashber, Mark Twain's
Pudd'nhead Wilson.  When an unexplained death occurs
at nearby Glen Mawr Manor, Kilgarvan decides the time
has come for him to initiate his career as a private

From the start, he faces obstacles and indignities that
Sherlock Holmes never had to worry about.  Glen Mawr
Manor is home to an estranged branch of the young
detective’s own family, subject to legal disputes that left
Xavier’s father disinherited.   Not only is the lad not
allowed to inspect the crime scene, he is not even
welcome on the premises.  Complicating matters, he has
fallen in love with his twelve-year-old cousin Perdita,
who lives at Glen Mawr Manor, and is as remote and
inaccessible as the estate itself.

The mystery itself is a gothic affair, replete with a
"locked room" twist familiar to fans of crime fiction, as
well as eerie atmospherics, sinister personages and hints
of supernatural forces of malevolent intent.  Oates
clearly relishes amplifying and parodying the genre
elements in her tale, and even includes occasional
commentaries by an unnamed narrator dealing with the
vagaries and subtleties of the literature of "Murder and
Mystery."  These tongue-in-cheek interludes are
inevitably marked by an untempered enthusiasm and
sense of self-righteousness.  For example:  

Amongst the more churlish criticisms leveled against the art of
Murder and Mystery,—in their classic literary forms, I should
hasten to say—is the objection, whether philosophical or aesthetic,
to the inevitable tidiness of the conclusion, toward which the form
instinctively moves: whereby all that has been bewildering, and
problematic, and, indeed, "mysterious" is, oft-times not altogether
plausibly, resolved: which is to say, explained.  It is objected that
"life is not like that"…As if it were not, to all right-thinking
persons, a triumphant matter that Evil be exposed in human form,
and murderers,—or murderesses—be brought to justice; and the
fundamental coherence of the Universe confirmed.

Oates plays other games with the authorial voice.  At
times the narrator is omniscient, able to slice and dice
the innermost feelings of characters; at other moments,
the narrator loses this acute psychic clarity, and must cite
obscure source documents in providing a scattershot
smattering of facts and details;  at the most frustrating
junctures, the narrator pleads total ignorance, and leaves
it up to the readers to guess what may have happened.  
Indeed, at two of the most dramatic moments in the
novel, Oates breaks off the story suddenly—at one
point, actually leaving her hero on the brink of dying a
painful and ignominious death, then switching subjects
for thirty pages before admitting that Kilgarvan somehow
survived through unknown means.  Elsewhere Oates
refuses to clear up the most intriguing aspects of the
puzzles she has set for us, for example leaving us
grappling with the particulars of the aforementioned
"locked room" murder.  Needless to say, Hollywood
studios will not be fighting over the movie rights to a
mystery novel that is so cavalier about resolving its

The novel follows Xavier Kilgarvan to his final case,
which brings him back to Winterthurn after an illustrious
career solving high-profile mysteries for an affluent
clientele.  Here his investigation turns into a personal
obsession, as he works laboriously to implicate one of
the most powerful men in town in a triple homicide.   
Once again, Oates mixes success and failure in such
judicious doses that readers may mull long and hard over
whether she has delivered the "happy ending" promised
by our unnamed narrator.   

But of the cleverness of
Mysteries of Winterthurn there can
be little debate.  Few other novelists have shown such
nimbleness in moving inside and outside genre formulas,
often within a single page or paragraph.  Throughout this
book, Oates will leave you wondering where old fashion
detection ends and new-fangled literary deconstruction
begins.  At times, parody blurs so seamlessly into a
straightforward period piece, that the novel appears to be
proceeding on two different planes simultaneously.

Yet a pronounced—and surprising—realism undercuts
the convoluted plot lines and postmodern narrative
devices of this supple work of fiction.  Other mysteries
reach their conclusion with the crime solved, the suspect
apprehended, and a peaceful social order put in place.  
Mysteries of Winterthurn is indifferent about these tidy
resolutions, and instead focuses on the one issue never
addressed in conventional detective stories—namely
how the investigation transforms the investigator.   
Surely a life lived in such proximity to illegality, if not
evil itself, can hardly be spent without dangerous
repercussions, and lasting scars?   By taking her sleuth
through his paces, Oates shows that, as the popular
adage recounts, crime may not pay, but also—and even
more thought-provokingly—that a life lived in allegiance
to justice and legality also can come with a very high
price tag.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense

Further Clues:

Celestial Timepiece: A Joyce Carol Oates Homepage

Stuart Spencer Interviews Joyce Carol Oates

Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates by Rosanna Greenstreet
Click on image to purchase
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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