Jane Langton, who published “Good and Dead” in 1986, was called “Today’s best American mystery writer” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I wouldn’t know, because this is the only book of hers that I’ve read, and it’s not a mystery.
This macabre little book deals with the congregation of a New England church who are dying in statistically unreasonable numbers. There are one or two cases of murder and fatal illness, but the main contributor to the surprisingly high death rate is a form of suicide pact among a group of people who know they aren’t long for this world and want to avoid prolonged suffering. There seem to be quite a lot of people in this position for one small town congregation, but maybe the average age of the church-goers is higher than the average age of the general population.
The unique quality of Langton’s writing is her birds eye view of a large group of characters with all their faults and foibles. Actually, it’s a view from an even greater height than that of a passing bird, more like the view of a slightly sarcastic recording angel. We’re treated to pithy descriptions of wives who are dissatisfied with their husbands, and why, and what, if anything, they’re doing about it. Ditto for dissatisfied husbands, restless teenagers, and the poor newly hired minister, who in addition to having a sick wife seems to suffer from a form of attention deficit disorder.
It’s like a written (and much more interesting) version of one of those television reality shows in which a bunch of characters are on camera for twenty-four hours a day. Trying to understand why people watch those shows, in which a self-selected group of attention seekers don’t do much of anything, the only explanation I can think of is that it’s part of human nature to want to know what other people really do and think when they’re alone. Of course, reality shows don’t really give us that insight. Jane Langton does.
Fourth of July Weekend Free Book Offer!
From July 1st through July 5th the Kindle edition of Mystery Time, the third Alex Kertész mystery, will be free on Amazon.