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Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol…
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Mysteries of Winterthurn

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Posted in the group Club Read 2009 on Sept. 26, 2009.

It had not seemed like an entirely quixotic plan to write a sequence of "genre" novels linked by political, cultural, and moral (especially "feminist") themes, set in a long-ago/mythic America intended to suggest contemporary times: a Gothic family saga, a nineteenth-century 'romance," a saga of Gothic horror . . . and a "novel of mystery and detection." It had not seemed quixotic — but then, it never does, for otherwise we would not have outsized and unclassifiable works of art, of any kind — to hope that there might be readers for such novels, that seek to transform what might be called psychological realism into "Gothic" elements . . . Joyce Carol Oates in the Author's Afterword for Mysteries of Winterthurn.

I include the excerpt above because the author herself does a fine job of describing this superb novel. Mysteries of Winterthurn is a collection of three inter-related stories - mysteries - cases 'solved' by the renowed American detective Xavier Kilgarven. Our narrator is a private collector of "Murder", as he puts it, an amateur expert, looking back upon the time of these 'cases' in the late 19th century. He tells the tales with a wonderful, heightened language and much omniscience (considering he is just a 'collector'). He leads the reader down a merry path (ok, 'merry' may not be the right word here) with many a short excursion hinter and yon. It's delightfully frustrating (of course, I know that is an oxymoron!) when the reader is anxious about the fate of our hero, or the verdict of a jury.

Winterthurn is a small city, full of large family estates with their pedigreed occupants (the Kilgarvens are but one of them), and all of the other things a bustling American city of the late 19th century might have (i.e. mills, millworkers, boarding houses, cottages, churches . . .). Xavier is a young man who has not yet left the city to find fame and fortune in Manhattan in the first tale, and middle-aged in the last. There is something that plagues him internally about these mysteries in his home town.

There is certainly a lot I could say about why I so enjoyed Winterthurn — in short,it is an wonderfully entertaining, thought-provoking novel. In the afterward, Oates talks briefly about why we are attracted to classic Gothic tales, a sort of acting out of an inner reality (my paraphrase). I find myself mulling that from time to time and really enjoying the mull when I do!

Strangely, I read this book over the course of about two months. I would read a chapter or two and then set it aside while I read something else. I'm not sure why I did that, it certainly was not out of disinterest, but I don't regret reading it in such a way. This is a not-for-everyone novel, I suppose, but it has become, I think, my favorite Oates work. ( )
  avaland | Jan 9, 2013 |
This is a truly brilliant book. I think it might be the Great American Novel. ( )
  annesadleir | Oct 27, 2012 |
Well, it was a wild read...very intense at times, I could not put it down, I stayed up way too many nights late reading it! It was over the top creepy and beautifully written too...if you can imagine, an odd combo, beauty and creepy, not quite a 'you got chocolate in my peanut butter'...it's one of those combined flavors you've never had before and not sure if you're gonna like...which is a typical JCO novel. There are books that are an acquired taste and some books require a reader to have the flexibility to read them with an open mind and welcome the writing as it is and not go into it with preconceived notions set in concrete...and take an unexpected journey into a story unlike anything you've read before...that is the beauty of books. ( )
  LauraJWRyan | May 21, 2011 |
The Mysteries of Winterthurn is a gothic thriller that is really three novellas in one book.

The brilliant young detective-hero Xavier Kilgarvan is confronted with three baffling cases—"The Virgin in the Rose-Bower," "The Devil's Half-Acre," and "The Blood-Stained Gown”. These cases tax his genius for detection to the utmost, just as his forbidden passion for his cousin Perdita becomes an obsession that shapes his life.

In the first of these stories, Xavier Kilgarvan is a schoolboy interested in criminology. In the last story, Xavier is now a world famous 40 year old detective, likened by some to Sherlock Holmes.

The stories are narrated by an unidentified observer. The language is dense and the plots twist and turn. I found this hard going and put it down many times, before persevering to the end. And what a let down the end was – with no closure at all. We are left to imagine the truth (if there is such a thing). ( )
  Jawin | Oct 23, 2010 |
Everyone read Bellefleur or them or Blonde. Everyone loved them. Me too. But this is an author who should write approximately tenth of the amount she is actually writing and stop and think first instead. 75% of her oeuvre is – although very popular in Reading Clubs I guess - totally mediocre (and I am very generous now). Mysteries of Winterthurn is not an exception either.

Success traps you much more easily than failure. While failure might discourage you success often makes you stuck-up and over-confident. That's what happens to Oates sometimes in her career and that is definitely the case with Winterthurn. It was written not much after Bellefleur and she evidently wanted to ride the success waves of that great family novel.

First of all, it is important to keep in mind that Oates' novel is supposed to be a classical mystery / detective story because this fact determines the critical approaches.

The story takes place in a small fictional American town in the East Coast – or better to say: stories as there are 3 ones (seemingly loosely) linked together by the same place and the same characters – a detective and his love. The question is: apart from this, is there any more, a bit deeper connection among the three stories?

We follow the protagonist, Xavier Kilgarvan's detective career from the beginning up to his 40s. In the first story there are several strange unnatural deaths in his own family and he manages to find out who stands behind all this. The second one is about some sadistic murders of factory workers (women) and in the third one a respected priest is murdered while in the middle of (seemingly) dubious acts. (You can read the book as a detective story, a whodunnit, so I am not telling you more.)

Well. I know, it is the umpteenth time I am writing this but again, Mysteries of Winterthurn seems to be an excellent example for the fact that a story itself is really not that important (=not enough) for a good novel. (In other words: the story is way over-estimated nowadays.) The literary value of a book lies mostly in the way an author handles (writes) a story. It is mainly true with mysteries. And that's where Oates slips: she evidently doesn't want to present an ordinary whodunnit, she feels she has to be "deeper", more "artistic". So she researches a whole bunch of cheap (American) pulp fiction from the beginning of the last century, decides to follow their formula but, as she is a "serious" novelist after all, she wants to write a persiflage, a kind of (not-too-funny) parody of these instead. So she uses a lot of archaisms, strange sentence-structures, fills her text with exalted fake-emotions, etc, etc. But there is a problem here: if you do decide on this genre you just cannot do things by halves. In a persiflage (parody) you either mock at somebody or not mock at them at all. You either need to take it totally seriously (and then drop the genre) or make fun of the characters, situations, etc. without any ("artistic") restrictions. That's what makes this genre work. Any other solution just confuses the receivers (=readers). Just like Oates confuses us in the Mysteries of Winterthurn: she evidently takes her almost-horror stories dead (haha) seriously but at the same time the way she tells us these stories (i.e. her writing style) is one of a parody. We tend to believe the seriousness of the stories but the archaic, mocking, sometimes pompous style that goes with it makes them sound discordant.

But even the stories themselves are not authentic in a literary sense. Yes, you can write unsolved mysteries very successfully (watch out: there is a good reason why I wrote "unsolved"; it is not necessarily referring to the actual story line, but again, I am not going to tell you more…), but you need to be an excellent writer to make it work (think of Edgar Allan Poe for instance). Or: you can create a surrealistic/enigmatic situation (chain of events) but in this case you need to give an explanation for the surrealism/enigma in a classic detective story. Unfortunately, Oates mixes up things again: she presents a mystery story in a pretty realistic way but leaves important elements of the same story enigmatically unsolved, causing uncertainty, unbalanced feelings in the reader (and not the good kind of literary uncertainty, believe me).

But let me to collect the positive features of the novel as well – and try to answer my beginning question at the same time: is there any more, a bit deeper connection among the three stories? After all, it says "A novel" and not "3 Novels" on the cover.

I have a feeling that if we can get over this mystery-persiflage thingie we might even discover what Oates' real purpose would be with her book. Somewhere deep (very, very deep, almost invisibly deep) she seems to talk about one thing in all 3 stories: she is outraged by the unscrupulous American Rich, who, with the help of their money, can overcome social morals, laws and anything or/and anybody who might stand in their way to live and do as they please. And after all this can be a suitable message for a reader to keep their motivation to finish the book.

Suitable – yes; literarily valuable – unfortunately: no. ( )
  KingaBrit | Oct 8, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0525242082, Hardcover)

The first paperback reprint since 1986 of the author's favorite among her several acclaimed and controversial Gothic novels.

In Mysteries of Winterthurn, the brilliant young detective-hero Xavier Kilgarvan is confronted with three baffling cases—"The Virgin in the Rose-Bower," "The Devil's Half-Acre," and "The Blood-Stained Gown"—that tax his genius for detection to the utmost, just as his forbidden passion for his cousin Perdita becomes an obsession that shapes his life.

"Exactly why Mysteries of Winterthurn, or more specifically, the youthful detective hero Xavier Kilgarvan remains so close to my heart is something of a mystery to me. It must be that Xavier, the painstaking, often frustrated, balked, discouraged and depressed amateur detective so misunderstood by his public, is a self-portrait of a kind: after Xavier has achieved a modicum of fame, or notoriety, in his 'hazardous' profession, he comes to feel that his public image is terribly misleading, since the public can have no awareness of the 'painstaking labor, the daily and hourly "grind," of the detective's work: and is woefully misled as to the glamorous ease with which mysteries are solved' as novels may appear, at a distance, to be 'easily' written if the novelist has a reputation for being prolific."—Joyce Carol Oates, from the Afterword

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:52 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Xavier Kilgarven has three baffling cases in his upper New York state 19th-century home, all of which are failures.

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