Mysteries of Winterthurn
by Joyce Carol Oates
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.
Essay 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 investigator.  

From the start, he faces obstacles and indi
gnities 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 enigmas.  

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 Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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
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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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