Misreading the Literary Evidence in Carol Shields's Mystery Plots

By Roy, Wendy | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2008 | Go to article overview

Misreading the Literary Evidence in Carol Shields's Mystery Plots


Roy, Wendy, English Studies in Canada


CAROL SHIELDS MAINTAINED A LONG-STANDING INTEREST in the mystery genre, and many of her books echo, reiterate, and revise elements of mystery plots. The book that critics seize on most often in this regard is her clever postmodernist parody of mystery novels and literary academia, Swann (1987). The first publisher, Stoddart, retitled the book Swann: A Mystery without first consulting Shields, and, partly as a result, it won the Arthur Ellis Award for best mystery book in Canada in 1988. (1) But contrary to the concession to genre-related codes implied by this award, Swann and Shields's other books do not follow conventional mystery plots, which usually begin with the disruption of societal order through a murder or other crime, include a second and more central narrative about a detective who unravels the details of the crime, and end with punishment of the criminal and a return to the established order (see Reddy 6-7 and Todorov 44). Tzvetan Todorov argued in 1966 that mystery literature "has its norms; to 'develop' them is also to disappoint them: to 'improve upon' detective fiction is to write 'literature"' (43). Shields's fiction during an almost thirty-year period from 1973 to 2002 questions this assumption by repeatedly blurring the boundaries between "literature" and popular mystery fiction. There is no murder, detective, or punishment in these books--or at least, no murder that is being investigated, since the most obvious death, that of Mary Swann, occurs twenty years before the action of Swann. Instead, the books' mysteries are related to the power granted to and withheld from women through reading, writing, and publication. As such, they fit into a long tradition of literary mysteries by women writers such as Dorothy Sayers (Gaudy Night, 1935) but have the most affinity with postmodernist examples of this tradition such as A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990) and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000), which inscribe and parody mystery codes as they unravel women writers' life stories. (2)

Shields's interest in literary mysteries began at least fifteen years before the publication of Swann with her first unpublished novel, which linked poetry to blackmail. At the time, Shields was a published poet (she had published Others in 1972 and had written many of the poems for the 1974 collection Intersect) and was working on a master's thesis on Susanna Moodie at the University of Ottawa. Shields told Eleanor Wachtel that during 1973 she sent her completed "literary whodunit" successively to McClelland and Stewart, Macmillan, and Oberon, all of whom sent her "nice rejection letters" (27-28). Two versions of this book, called The Vortex--one labeled with the tongue-in-cheek pen name "Polly Pen"--exist in four separate manuscripts among the 142 boxes of material Shields donated before her death to the literary manuscript collection of Library and Archives Canada. (3) Although Shields was confident enough about her book that she sent out the manuscript for possible publication, she eventually agreed that it was not publishable and began work on Small Ceremonies (published in 1976). Indeed, the melodramatic plot of The Vortex and its frankly unbelievable proliferation of suspects support this negative assessment. But threads in Shields's unpublished manuscript can be tied to similar threads in her later books, in particular aspects of feminist literary mystery evident in Swann but also in Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden (1977), and Unless (2002), as well as in the fragments of a mystery about academia and women's fertility that she planned with her friend and collaborator, Blanche Howard, but never completed. (4) Shields's first mystery manuscript, while not as finely honed as the later published works, evidences much of the same cleverness and some of the same techniques, including several that have since been identified as postmodernist, and reveals the seeds of her interest in the mystery of women's relationship with literature. …

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