Matthew Sullivan’s Coded Literature
There is undeniably something special about mysteries revolving around the world of literature, mainly because it feels that the discoveries we might end up making are limitless in their potential and can stretch back as far in time as need be. This goes double if what we’re talking about is a work of fiction; the novel within a novel structure gives authors tremendous wiggle room to let their creativity run free and weave an intricate web of puzzles all interconnected in strange and far-reaching ways. Matthew Sullivan is an author who decided to tackle the challenge of writing this kind of mystery without losing his head in the process, and ultimately ended up writing the rather engaging and curious Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore novel.
The premise of this story is quite simple in its overall strokes, as we are presented with a bookstore clerk by the name of Lydia Smith. She leads a rather simple existence, one devoid of any daring adventures or unpredictable elements, surrounded by books more than anything else. However, all of this peaceful calm is one day thrown straight into the meat grinder as one of her regulars, Joey Molina, inexplicably commits suicide in the bookstore’s upper room. As it turned out, Joey had literally no one in the world and, with Lydia being his favourite bookseller, he decided to leave her all his possessions. While at first they just seem like the tragic reminders of a lonely man, soon she finds his books, and is horrified to see them defaced and mutilated in rather disturbing ways. While to some they might seem like the incoherent breakdown of a mentally-ill and lonely person, Lydia sees past it: the books contain some sort of hidden message. As she digs further and further towards the truth, she makes the uncomfortable realization that this might be connected to her own childhood when she was left alive at the scene of a multiple homicide, the perpetrator never caught.
What Makes A Great Mystery
From the get-go it becomes quite obvious that Matthew Sullivan put most of his time and effort into developing the mystery and moving the story along in as engaging a manner as possible. Most of the focus is placed on Lydia’s investigation, how she moves along from one clue to the next and slowly but surely reveals the layers of truth hidden beneath the veils of deception. In my opinion, what truly makes a mystery great is its ability to keep you longing for answers while consistently surprising you with reveals that are logical but nevertheless unexpected. In my opinion, Sullivan did a praiseworthy job in this department: even as we reach closer and closer to the truth we never stop asking questions and trying to figure it out for ourselves until the very end. As a result, we develop a commitment to this mystery, wanting to see it through not only to know if we are right, but simply because it beckons us to… and I believe that’s the staple of any great mystery.
Now, on the flip side of the coin, there are a few flaws with the way in which Sullivan developed a few segments of the story. For starters, while the clues left by Joey for Lydia are indeed intriguing, but after a certain point they feel a bit repetitive and perhaps even unnecessary. There are also some developments that come along with no real set-up, like the return of her childhood friend, and feel like they were simply introduced for the sake of advancing the plot in the desired direction. These aren’t exactly breaking problems that cast a shadow over the rest of the book, but they are things you should be prepared to look past. Ultimately, the final reveal is definitely worth the wait and ties everything together in a nice little knot.
The Actors on the Stage
I feel that because Matthew Sullivan spent so much time and effort focusing on the plot itself, he may have forgotten to dedicate as much effort to his characters. First off though, I found Lydia herself to be a very enjoyable and relatable protagonist in more than a few ways; it’s clear the author took the time necessary to make her into a true person we wouldn’t have any problem following. While of course she does sometimes benefit from the uncanny luck that befalls most literary protagonists, she never feels like a mere vehicle to move the story along. Unfortunately though, I don’t think the same can be said for most other characters.
Most of the other people we meet in this story feel as if they’ve been put there as props to accomplish specific goals, which mostly boil down to helping move the story along. I can’t really say that any of them are particularly memorable or relatable, and for the most part we forget about them as soon as they are no longer needed by the plot. Now, this doesn’t mean that they stop you from enjoying the book or make it bad, but in my opinion this was a missed opportunity to make this read a more immersive experience. In other words, if a bit more time was spent on developing the characters they could have gone from objects to actors and given the story a bit more panache. Ultimately though, I don’t feel as if it’s bad enough to ruin the rest of the book.
The Final Verdict
To close the show, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan is a fine literary mystery that does a commendable job at keeping you interested in the plot and turning the pages until you reach the end. Despite having a few flaws, I would still heavily recommend this book to anyone out there who enjoys puzzles and enigmas set in a bookstore.
Matthew Sullivan is an American author from Denver who holds a B.A. From the University of San Francisco as well as an M.F.A. From the University of Idaho. His many writings have been nominated for various awards, including the Pushcart Prize, not to mention that he won the Florida Review Editor’s and the Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prizes.
In terms of full publications so far he has released two books into the world: The 2005 Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories and Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore.