By September 29, 2010 1 Comments Read More →

The Secret History of How Youth Is Wasted on the Young

We had our first crime fiction book discussion at the library on our new 2010-2011 theme:  Youth is Wasted on the Young.  I chose this theme this year despite the fact that I know that the number one rule when writing a crime novel is never kill any animal that can be remotely kept as a pet.  However, the second rule is the one I really worried about:  never put a child in jeopardy.  The reason for this is that people do not like reading about children in jeopardy. 

The books that I selected for the list are not really about children being eaten for dinner by trolls.  The idea was that anyone roughly under the age of 25 could be a victim, a perpetrator, or even the detective.  How much fun is that?

I have five less people in my discussion this year than last. 

So fifteen hardy souls with a fearless reading spirit tackled the first book on the new year’s list:  The Secret History by Donna Tartt within which no children were eaten by trolls–but they could have been.

The idea of The Secret History is that we are being taken back in time by Richard Papen who is reminiscing about his time at the Hampden College in Vermont.  Because Richard is essentially a loner and a loser who immediately tells us he is also a liar, he can be safely defined as an unreliable narrator.  Once on campus, he worms his way into a coven of students studying Greek under the strange tutelage of Julian Morrow. 

At first, readers might think they are reading about a troll who is about to eat the children.  But slowly and carefully, Tartt wrestles control of the narrative from our focus on Julian and puts is squarely on the shoulders of Henry, a scholarly student who is the master puppeteer behind the other students. 

It is not to nearly the end of the book that Richard asks one of the other students why they always did what Henry asked them to.  He should have asked earlier in the book and perhaps three people would not have died over the course of this novel.

To call this a crime novel is to add it to the same type of writing that authors like Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith and Minette Walters create.  Most of the members of my book discussion group came in hating this book and then proceeded to run the discussion without me, anticipating most of the issues I would have raised with my prepared questions if they had given me a chance.

I was not needed and I think that is the definition of a great book discussion.

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "The Secret History of How Youth Is Wasted on the Young"

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  1. shavers@crc.losrios.edu' Shelley says:

    Maybe this is just because of my own writing, but when crime novels are being discussed, I always wonder if moral issues are central to the discussion: seems like that would be fruitful.

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