Why does high school provide such a fertile setting for mystery novels?
Yes, for teenagers and teachers a demand looms for throwaway thrillers to fill the bored haze of study hall. But surely there’s more to it than simply satisfying a built-in audience’s affinity for consuming the familiar.
Could it be that the problem-solving skills acquired in the navigation between childhood and adulthood lend themselves to solving a particular brand of mystery? Namely, the humane kind that deals more in emotional currency than in cold hard cash, though there’s always some of that, too.
Eighteen-year-olds stand at the edge of their known world, fearful of falling off the edge of the map of childhood into an uncharted future realm—here be dragons, for sure. Hyperbole doesn’t bend to reason, especially when you’re living in the space between thinking that your whole life is decided already and the terrifying unknown that actually awaits. Figuring out which room in the house hides the knife-wielding psychopath, then, offers an attractively simple predicament.
Such is the case with Emily St. John Mandel’s The Lola Quartet, a novel noir that wears its influences proudly on the beige sleeve of its trench coat: Raymond Chandler, Joyce Carol Oates, even R.L. Stine. Mandel’s third novel prevails as a gentle mystery, steeped in melancholia but spiked with brutal injustices and violent passions, and all their consequences.
Mandel deftly tackles what is itself an aging genre and manages to imbue the ho-hum minutia of crime and punishment with a sad, quiet elegance. This whodunit does not shake out with all the usual questions—what, where, when, why—and it’s not supposed to. Mandel emphasizes just as much how the unknown drives us, how the unknowable creates and keeps feeding fears that don’t only touch young adults, but entangle and consume them.
The story alternates between the high-school years and present-day lives, a decade after graduation, of four former members of a high-school band, the Lola Quartet, and a younger girl named Anna Montgomery.
Gavin Sasaki is a late-twenties burnout who was a promising newspaper reporter in New York, but in the throes of a breakdown, pulls a Stephen Glass. After plagiarizing and flat-out inventing stories, he gets fired and must move back home to swampy South Florida. Once there, Gavin investigates the disappearance of Anna, an enchanting-but-damaged waif who went missing at the age of 16. She’s the type of girl who scripted her “i”s with playful circles instead of dots and wore a bass clef tattoo on her left shoulder blade.
“The tension between her loveliness and her violence was captivating,” observes Gavin, trying to fit together clues to her disappearance. Anna, we learn, was Gavin’s high-school girlfriend. When Gavin’s sister discovers a child in town who looks awfully Sasaki-like, Gavin takes refuge from the disaster of his failed journalism career in solving the mystery of what happened to Anna—and in finding this little girl he believes to be his daughter.
I grew up in the 1990s, the heyday of the mall mystery. So did Emily St. John Mandel. In separate theaters in different countries (Mandel is Canadian), we likely watched beautiful movie stars not that much older than ourselves get murdered, murder in turn, then find the killer in the knick of time when the small-town sheriff—or any of the other adults—proved too inept to save the day.
Kids like me spent the decade watching villains with hooks for hands or supernatural dream-killers in striped sweaters. We naturally progressed to Sara Michelle Gellar—aka Buffy the Vampire Slayer, still the reigning queen of campy mystery, her message equally brainy and heartfelt— then on to R.L. Stine (Goosebumps, Fear Street, among the many). Finally, as educated readers, we found the father of the genre, Raymond Chandler. (Mandel has a secondary character in The Lola Quartet named William Chandler, an homage, I’m betting, to the author of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and many other excellent “detective stories,” as he called them.)
The Lola Quartet gives the ’90s formula a twist. Savvy teens have become the ineffective adults. And though a detective plot drives the story, the real mystery uncloaks itself soon enough: How did a group of promising young people fall so hard so fast?
To solve the mystery of Anna’s whereabouts, Gavin goes to the three other members of the Lola Quartet. We find a depressing bunch, racked with the addictions, complaints and failures of the intervening decade: Gambling. Pills. Alcohol. Debt. Divorce. They may not long for adolescence as a golden age, but it must seem rich by compare.
We now uncover another clue as to why mystery novels get cast so often onto a high school canvas. The past somehow feels safer, even when it wasn’t. Memory offers comfort, in addition to mystery.
Another modus operandi among modern mysteries: The characters tend to sweat a lot, and not just figuratively. Instead of Whedon-style Hellmouths, they puddle idly in Florida, perhaps the most surreal state in the Union. Alligators and pythons slither into backyard pools, and leftover-from-another-era jazz joints hold down corners. Mandel constructs it all in gaslight prose. A reader acutely remembers that feeling of looking around the old hometown, craving something normal but despairing at the weirdness.
Gavin feels like he belongs to another place and another era, but after 18 years of working to escape the swelter, he finds himself back where he came from. He wears a favorite fedora, watches Chinatown over and over, lugs around an old-fashioned camera. For Gavin, image trumps reality, and even though he briefly got out of the small town where half the population wastes away in rehab, he hits soon enough on his own addiction: a good façade.
“You know what your problem is?” His friend Silas said one night when they were drinking together at an Irish bar near the paper. “I just figured it out.”
“Please,” Gavin said, “tell me what my problem is.”
“Look at you. Jesus. The fedora, the trench coat. You want to run around the city with a flashbulb camera and a press card in your hat band.”
“Your problem is that you don’t really want to work at a newspaper, per se. You want to work in 1925.” And he doesn’t disagree.
This band of outsiders all have different puzzle pieces they can fit together to solve the mystery of what happened to Anna Montgomery. Anna’s sister Sasha, one of the quartet, tries her best to protect Anna and her daughter. Gavin runs into the tough-talking former gambler waiting tables on the nightshift at the Starlight Diner, an old-fashioned greasy spoon done up in neon and nostalgia right off the highway. Mandel describes it as “meant to be viewed at night.” We know exactly what she means—her book feels this way, too. After all, when else would anything happen in this dangerous, beautiful setting?
Naturally, the mystery boils over at the Starlight Diner, amidst Sweet ’n Low packets and cups of watery coffee. “Once you step into the underworld it’s hard to come out again,” says William Chandler, a regular at the diner and Sasha’s sponsor at Gamblers Anonymous. It’s the type of over-the-top horror-film philosophy we can easily imagine preached by Rupert Giles, Buffy Summers’s sponsor-like mentor, her “Watcher.”
In solving Anna’s mystery, the Lola Quartet must account for the debts of their lives and atone as adults for misdeeds incurred when they were teenagers. It ends up a more difficult challenge for some. As Gavin and Anna realize of some mysteries, the thing you’re chasing usually wants to find you too. Running away often turns out to be the most direct route to what you’re trying to escape.
Mandel fills her book with outright and sly literary allusions, delightful when caught. One quartet member has synesthesia, an unusual condition in which sounds can be seen as specific colors—a nod to Nabokov, a famous synesthete. Elsewhere, obscure Russian literature rests on bedside tables, and The Glass Menagerie crops up multiple times. Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song figures strongly. (Long before the reference, Anna’s damaged naivete and shaky nerves bring to mind Gary Gilmore’s girlfriend, Nicole Baker—another abused urchin with a pretty face.)
A question that Mandel and her characters ask over and over: What do those with lesser genius make of themselves in this world? None of The Lola Quartet’s members flash enough talent for the big time, but they seem cruelly fated to fail.
Here, again, we sleuth an answer to why adolescence rises up over and over as a milieu for mysteries.
Adulthood turns out to be a backwards mystery: Only after we wade deeply enough into adulthood do we grow capable of retrospection. Only then can account for how we got where we are, why some things never took off the way we dreamed. Mandel has set out to explore, not solve, the most broad whodunit of all—the mystery of failure. Why does it so often seems inevitable for most? Why do a lucky few escape it?
In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote, “It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.”
Mandel explores with compassion small-town America, filled with small-town Americans and their small-town mysteries, often the most difficult to solve.
“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption,” Chandler’s essay continued.
The ultimate redemption can prove to be the most mundane kind of acceptance.
Like all good mysteries, The Lola Quartet couldn’t end any other way.
J. Nicole Jones is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine online and on Capital New York. A native of South Carolina, she lives in Brooklyn.