I've always had a penchant for odd mysteries: mysteries that have no mystery, mysteries without answers, mysteries that aren't about the mystery at all.
There's a body at the beginning of Garner, a dead girl floating in a creek in the forest. No detective walks the roads and paths of Garner; no police make even the slightest appearance. Yet the girl lies dead, and someone is responsible.
Not unlike many mysteries, after we've seen the body, the book rewinds, and we see the girl, alive. As the book traces her last days and weeks, one can easily forget her impending death. In fact, her death is clearly not the most important aspect of the book. I'd venture that the star of the book is the town, the landscape, its roads and forests, farms and farmers, main street and history, not in the way that stories tell of the dark side of small town life, but in an everyday, seasonal way that looks into the past and present of the inhabitants.
But, the mystery is the part of the book that haunts me.
On first reading, I was baffled. Who killed Francis? Why? The ending was so subtle, I wasn't sure I was understanding correctly. Even after a second read, I doubt what I think is the answer. I don't want to believe it, but I also find myself re-evaluating parts of the books, statements and passages. I try to see things in the light of a discovery of murder.
I am not even sure the book has any definitive solution. The narration of the book is filtered through so many different characters that, with the beginnings of suspicion, one can doubt the veracity of every statement and event. Any solution, any revelation of a murderer feels contrary to the opinions I want to have of the various characters. I am implicated in the murder by placing it in the hands of one of the characters. As a reader, I have to create the conditions of motive and means. Even the actual cause of death remains unclear, another gap that we must fill.
The book also denies us the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth that often accompanies the "death in a small town" genre. A story that so often reduces any death to melodrama and "life changing" moments. Garner loops around from the death in the beginning, back to the past, and then forward to the death again, never reaching the moment of grieving, tears, and recriminations. Like the seasons of the year, life follows death, death follows life.
In these ways, Garner diverts from the paths of convention in ways that attracted me to the novel, though this would all be moot if the writing were not so evocative and mysterious in itself.