Review: The Mysteries, by Lisa Tuttle

Lisa Tuttle’s story, ‘vegetable Love’ appears in the anthology I have recently edited, Improbable Botany. Here is a review I wrote for Vector of Lisa’s 2005 novel, The Mysteries, reissued last year by Jo Fletcher Books.   A detective novel requires a mystery. The title of Lisa Tuttle’s novel is as up front as can be. However, two things soon become apparent, that in this novel people are themselves ‘mysteries’, and that this is no conventional detective story, in that so far as anyone can tell, no crime has been committed. Ian Kennedy is an American expat in London, barely making a living as a private detective specialising in finding missing people. On the verge of middle age and thinking about a career change, another American, Laura Lensky, asks him to find her daughter, Peri, who disappeared two years ago in Scotland. While Peri has abandoned her old life of her own free will, naturally Laura wants to know that nothing bad has happened to her daughter, that she is alive and well. So too does Peri’s one time fiancĂ©, Hugo, a young filmmaker. Though while his is concerned, his life has moved on; he has a new girlfriend who would not appreciate Peri’s return. Kennedy, meanwhile, is driven to find those who have gone missing because of mysteries in his own past. Mysteries that have taught him how perceptions can be affected by memory, hope and fantasy. For years Kennedy remembered his father stopping the family car in the middle of nowhere, getting out, walking into a field, and then vanishing before his eyes. Later Kennedy realised this did not in fact happen. His father simply went to work one day and didn’t come home, absconding to start a new life. An incomprehensible trauma came to be explained through an inexplicable fantasy. Then later still, Kennedy found that not even the fantasy was his own invention, but something he had read and later forgotten in a book. A supposedly true story which itself turned out to be fabricated. An urban legend. The layers of unreality accumulate. History repeats itself when one day the love of Kennedy’s life, Jenny, simply walks out and disappears. That was ten years before the novel’s present, and with nothing left in America, Kennedy relocated and made a new life in England. The story unfolds through Kennedy’s investigation into what has happened to Peri, a narrative which mixes past and present, paralleled with the gradual revelation of his own mysteries: his youthful discovery of what really happened when his father left, and his later enquiry into Jenny’s disappearance. Set against this is Peri’s story. The tale Laura and Hugh have to tell is one that raises more questions than can comfortably be answered, pointing to a supernatural explanation which Laura refuses to consider. And yet Kennedy is ideally placed to investigate, having been recommended to Laura by the one person who would know that this case would resonate with him because of a further mystery in his past. Once before, Kennedy investigated a missing person, the circumstances of which bore uncanny parallels to Peri’s disappearance, circumstances that would seem impossible to anyone else, and for Kennedy, impossible to ignore. And so Kennedy finds himself in Scotland, confronting a sometimes painful personal history, exploring the edges of a deeper, more universal mythological past, the ancient mysteries, clues to which might be found in various tellings and retellings of Celtic legends. Sometimes people disappear. Between the main chapters Tuttle inserts short accounts of various vanishments, and sometimes of people who came back. Meanwhile Kennedy, Laura and Hugh come closer to finding what has happened to Peri. The novel asks, do they each want to face the truth, and when they do, how will it affect them? What will they do? The Mysteries is a slow burn of a book. It pulls the reader in gradually, skirting the edge of the supernatural, the numinous, and the unknown. When once it gathers pace the final third has a ferocious grip. There are moments of great tension, of a building sense of dread and malevolence, though this is not horror or even dark fantasy. The supernatural here is simply different, ‘other’. There is even a hint of some form of scientific explanation. The otherworldly characters have their own purpose, which only tangentially intersects with the everyday realm of human life. There are no true monsters or villains. The ‘other’ is not some dread Lovecraftian domain, though it can be hazardous, fraught with peril. Rather The Mysteries is a story of choice, about engagement with the world as it is, about love. It contains several love stories, exploring different sorts of love, selfish, sacrificial, romantic, familial, doing so while telling a story which, while not especially complex in terms of detective fiction – there are no great plots, crimes or conspiracies – takes fine advantage of the detective novel format. For what is a detective story if not a metaphor for the quest to understand the nature of the world, for addressing that which we instinctively recognise is out of kilter, seen only through a glass darkly? And if that sounds vague, fear not that it will all end too ambiguously for satisfaction. In this review I have deliberately avoided more than a hint of the central mysteries of the novel. But everything is lovingly resolved in a book that, alongside The Silver Bough, may well be Lisa Tuttle’s finest achievement to date.