Personally, I don’t gravitate much towards the mystery genre. Many years ago, I read quite a few Nancy Drew books. I have not picked up a mystery since. However, this last summer, I ventured to the bookstore and scoured its shelves for something new. Eventually, I found myself by a table, where couple copies of The Secret History by Donna Tartt were neatly stacked. Having seen pictures of the book floating around on the reading community on Tumblr, I flipped through it. It seemed to read so much like a classic book that I didn’t even realize that it was a mystery. I guess you could say I was tricked. With just a few skims, I could tell that it was description-heavy, the kind of book that I like, even though they can be a hit and miss with me. I love details, flowery language, and the romantic. But when it is used too often and without purpose, I end up not enjoying the story as much. Despite this, I decided to take my chances on this book. I’m glad I did.
Not only is the book full of description and beauty, it is actually a huge theme of the book. Right off the bat in chapter one, Tartt’s main character Richard Papen begins with, “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” Richard is a transfer student at a small liberal arts college, at first contemplating studying Greek because he excelled at it. However, after observing a mysteriously small group of Greek students, he pursues the study out of curiosity. On the surface, this group of four seems very close-knit and intelligent. Their dynamic is beautiful, and Richard is both intimidated and fascinated by it.
The book amounts to an incident described at the beginning of the book, in which the group murders one of its members. The rest of the story then backtracks to the beginning, and the unraveling of the how and why begins. This dominantly drives my desire to get inside the minds of the characters. By invoking this desire, Tart succeeds in making it very clear that the details in this book is not useless, but important. The beauty of the group and the situation was broken down, individual by individual. There was so much background behind all of the characters. Many times when I thought I could predict what a character would do next, Tartt would flip over another stone and show me another side of him or her that I did not expected. For example, there is one instance in which Richard contemplates the group’s knowledge of the modern world. He explains, “Once, over dinner, Henry was quite startled to learn from me than men had walked on the moon. ‘No,’ he said, putting down his fork. ‘It’s true,’ chorused the rest, who had somehow managed to pick this up along the way. ‘I don’t believe it.’ ‘I saw it,’ said Bunny. ‘It was on television.’ ‘How did they get there? When did this happen?’” The group seems to be so closed off by the rest of the world, and Richard can’t help but stay within the circle to find out why. Neither could I help it.
With Richard as the narrator, I am kept lost, not a step ahead of him in the plot. The deepness of the characters reminds me that you don’t need a lot of external action in order to keep the reader in suspense. Sometimes it’s the lack of action, the lack of dialogue, and what goes on inside the mind. I want to be able to write like this, to be able to keep description in purposeful ways. There are ways in which description can be used poorly, but in the case of Donna Tartt and The Secret History, this was the opposite.