Laurie Matheson is the Director of the University of Illinois Press.
As a publishing professional much of my time is devoted to reading and assessing the qualities of a piece of writing. Is it persuasive, compelling, intriguing? Is it well constructed, free of mechanical errors, graceful? Is it loose or tight? Formal or conversational? Analytic or descriptive? All of these factor in to the success of a piece. But if I had to drill down to the one element that makes me want to keep reading, it’s whether there’s a central knot the narrative is progressively untying, a problem whose resolution is uncovered layer by layer.
Perhaps the importance I ascribe to this quality comes from my first job in publishing, as an editorial assistant to Susanne Kirk, the editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons who handled mystery novels. Susanne’s work with authors was like the work my acquisitions colleagues and I do with our authors, in providing authors with a critical perspective that can step back from the work and suggest alternate ways of structuring arguments, rebalancing the narrative elements to foreground the essential and allow the secondary to recede, try to pull the storyline forward and hang the details on the central structure. But since Susanne was working with fiction writers, sometimes she would actually suggest a different twist to the plot or even a different ending. Her marvelous eye for character, as well as a sly sense of humor, marked the novels she chose to publish.
Scholarly books don’t necessarily prioritize those elements, but one lesson they can take from mystery novels is pacing, and building the narrative around a central compelling enigma. For instance, Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago dissects the social, political, and institutional factors that made a week of sweltering conditions in 1995 disproportionately deadly. Like Heat Wave, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed explores the choices various civilizations have made, ways they have elected or declined to adapt, sometimes with cataclysmic results. Both of these derive their power from a central burning question, from expert pacing, and from a sense of foreboding, as each ill-fated decision, each confluence of decisive events comes into view at the perfect moment. Kate Summersdale’s marvelous The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, which weaves together a true crime, the dawn of the detective novel, and the historical emergence of the private detective figure, similarly pulls the reader inexorably forward, making us want to find out the end of the story. Historians, musicologists, and others take note: there’s nothing like a good mystery to keep a reader turning the pages.