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The Sirens of Suspense




James Klise is the author of The Art of Secrets, newly released from Algonquin Books for Young Readers. His debut novel, Love Drugged, was a Stonewall Honor book, an ALA Rainbow List selection, and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. In addition, his essays, reviews, and short fiction have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago-Sun TimesReaderville Journal, StoryQuarterly, New Orleans Review, Southern Humanities Review, Ascent, Sou’wester, and elsewhere.


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James appeared on Saturday's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon on NPR. Listen to the interview HERE.

My new novel, The Art of Secrets (Algonquin Books for Young Readers), is a contemporary crime story told from a dozen points of view. First we hear from a high school sophomore, Saba Khan, whose family has lost its Chicago apartment in a fire. Saba mentions in her journal that the tragedy may have been “the best thing that ever happened” to her. It’s not clear what she means by that statement, at first.

The second narrator is Saba’s father, Farooq, a factory-worker born in Pakistan, who privately wonders if the source of the blaze may have been one of his own reckless family members. The narration subsequently is picked up by Saba’s fellow classmates, various teachers, the school principal, a foreign exchange student from Spain, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, and an art appraiser—many of whom have some secret stake in the community’s response to Saba’s personal loss. In the middle of this outpouring of goodwill, more crimes are committed. (“More! More!” I hear the crime lovers chant greedily.)

One benefit to telling a mystery story with multiple narrators is that the reader usually knows more about the story than any of the individual characters can ever know. There’s a thrill to gaining access to so many confidences. There’s also the jolt and fun of discovering that some characters’ accounts are more reliable than others. And, of course, there is the pleasure for the author (and, one hopes, the reader) of playing with a dramatic cast of distinct narrative voices.

The rotating-narrator device was partly inspired by one of my favorite novels—in fact, the most suspenseful novel I have ever read. Visiting the Sirens of Suspense blog seems like the perfect opportunity for me to evangelize about The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

The novel is famously the "story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve."  If you can get past that creaky first line, you’ve got a thrilling, twisty treat ahead of you.

Collins’ novel was a cultural phenomenon when it appeared in 1860. At the time, merchandizing included white bonnets, white dressing gowns, and even a perfume. For fans of Downton Abbey, think of The Woman in White as what the Dowager Countess might have brought along for fun on her honeymoon. There have been film and television adaptations, and even an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but I’ve never seen any of them. The source material delivers so well, and with such humor and style, I can think of no reason to see an abridgment. (Also, as with many classic texts, you can read the novel for free on your e-reader.)

The story takes us on a journey to a remote coastal English estate, where we find single women in jeopardy, a comical hypochondriac, a treacherous suitor, a ghost seen graveside at a country church, private letters intercepted, untimely illnesses (both natural and unnatural), wrongful imprisonment, stolen identities, and numerous concealed vantages for eavesdropping. The plot is outrageous and convoluted, yes, but never confusing. Our hero is Walter Hartright, a 28-year old, unmarried drawing instructor in London who has been offered a job at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. The four-month assignment will entail two primary tasks: extensive art conservation for his employer, Frederick Fairlie, Esq, and also instruction for Mr. Fairlie’s two nieces, Marian and Laura.

The excitement begins before Mr. Hartright even departs for his employment. As my intention is to seduce you into reading this extraordinary novel, and because the text is safely in public domain, I can (and will happily) quote from this infamous early scene in detail.

The story begins in summer. Very late one night, Hartright walks back to London through Hampstead Heath from his mother’s cottage. He’s said his good-byes to his family and is eager to embark on this new professional adventure: “By the time I had arrived at the end of the road I had become completely absorbed in my own fanciful visions of Limmeridge House, of Mr. Fairlie, and of the two ladies whose practice in the art of water-colour painting I was so soon to superintend.” (Spoiler art: Very little painting instruction will get accomplished.)

Just then, out of the darkness, a hand reaches out to grab Hartright’s shoulder: “There, in the middle of the broad, bright high road…stood the figure of a solitary woman, dressed from head to food in white garments.” Understandably, Hartright is freaked out by the surprise of her touch (“every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop”), but the woman doesn’t apologize for startling him. She doesn’t have a moment to waste:

“Did you hear me?" she said, still quietly and rapidly, and without the least fretfulness or impatience. "I asked if that was the way to London.”

“Yes,” I replied, “that is the way… You must excuse my not answering you before. I was rather startled by your sudden appearance in the road; and I am, even now, quite unable to account for it.”

“You don't suspect me of doing anything wrong, do you? I have done nothing wrong. I have met with an accident—I am very unfortunate in being here alone so late. Why do you suspect me of doing wrong?”

She spoke with unnecessary earnestness and agitation, and shrank back from me several paces.

Hartright is heading the same way, so he offers to accompany her. She agrees, but makes Hartright promise to let her go when she pleases, and not to “interfere” with her. Each time she begs, Hartright promises. They walk together for a while. The woman appears to be in a state of emergency, but it’s evident wants to trust him. She has had an accident, she explains again, and worries he may think less of her for her misfortune. He is drawn to her, in part because of her vulnerable state, her “loneliness and helplessness,” and also due to her odd line of questioning:

“I want to ask you something," she said suddenly. "Do you know many people in London?”

“Yes, a great many.”

“Many men of rank and title?” There was an unmistakable tone of suspicion in the strange question. I hesitated about answering it.

“Some,” I said, after a moment's silence.

“Many”—she came to a full stop, and looked me searchingly in the face—“many men of the rank of Baronet?”

Too much astonished to reply, I questioned her in my turn. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I hope, for my own sake, there is one Baronet that you don't know.”

"Will you tell me his name?”

“I can't—I daren't—I forget myself when I mention it.” She spoke loudly and almost fiercely, raised her clenched hand in the air, and shook it passionately; then, on a sudden, controlled herself again, and added, in tones lowered to a whisper “Tell me which of them YOU know.”

I could hardly refuse to humour her in such a trifle, and I mentioned three names. Two, the names of fathers of families whose daughters I taught; one, the name of a bachelor who had once taken me a cruise in his yacht, to make sketches for him.

“Ah! you DON'T know him,” she said, with a sigh of relief.

Okay, so the lady has got some serious “Baron issues”—for good reason, we learn later. Despite her odd behavior, the two strangers soon discover that they share something in common: Limmeridge House, the place where Hartright is due to teach, is remarkably the very same place where the woman went to school, and was “once happy” there for a while. She is particularly indebted to the memory of Mrs. Fairlie, who was kind to her. Most of the family she once knew is dead or gone by now, she surmises: “If any more are left there of that name, I only know I love them for Mrs. Fairlie’s sake.”

Hartright and the woman walk all the way into the London city limits, until Hartright finds her a carriage that will take her, vaguely, to a friend she knows across the city. She thanks him for his generosity and they say good-bye.

Their brief time together will strike a familiar chord for any reader who lives in a big city; we’ve all had the occasional encounter with an eccentric stranger on the street, a lively anecdote for the water-cooler or a tale to amuse a dinner party. This is all Hartright’s encounter might have been, except that ten minutes later another carriage passes by on the road. Hartright steps aside and witnesses this scene:

…On the opposite and lighter side of the way, a short distance below me, a policeman was strolling along in the direction of the Regent's Park.

The carriage passed me—an open chaise driven by two men.

"Stop!" cried one. "There's a policeman. Let's ask him."

The horse was instantly pulled up, a few yards beyond the dark place where I stood.

"Policeman!" cried the first speaker. "Have you seen a woman pass this way?"

"What sort of woman, sir?"

"A woman in a lavender-coloured gown——"

"No, no," interposed the second man. "The clothes we gave her were found on her bed. She must have gone away in the clothes she wore when she came to us. In white, policeman. A woman in white."

"I haven't seen her, sir."

"If you or any of your men meet with the woman, stop her, and send her in careful keeping to that address. I'll pay all expenses, and a fair reward into the bargain."

The policeman looked at the card that was handed down to him.

"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?"

"Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in white. Drive on."

The chapter ends there. It’s probably where I should leave you, too, for maximum seductive effect. Hartright’s account continues, now with a mystery for him to solve when he gets to Limmeridge House, but before long, the narrative role passes to the family solicitor, then the housekeeper, the cook, as well as other members of the Fairlie family. Collins’ ingeniously passes the torch at pivotal moments that heighten the suspense, always giving the reader more information that any of the individual characters have access to. As such, the reader understands the stakes, as well as anticipates the dangers, far better than the characters do. Even the villain, charming and powerful and terrifying, commandeers a portion of the narrative.

In terms of plot and characters, Collins’ famous novel shares little in common with my new book, The Art of Secrets. My story is not set on romantic estate with formal gardens and gazebos. I regret to inform you that I don’t have even a single mysterious ghost, nor do I suspect that an Art of Secrets perfume or dressing gown will be sold at your local mall. Instead my novel is set in very recognizable, modern, diverse Chicago, a city of high-rise apartment buildings and under-funded schools, CTA bus stops, thrift stores, and coffee shops.

Strangely enough, however, the two books have always been linked in my mind. In addition to the multiple-narrator format, both books include harrowing fires, deceptive identities, suspicious-looking “foreign” influences, sinister plots and secret motives, watercolor paintings, art teachers—in other words, more than enough commonalities to justify me spending a pleasant evening writing about The Woman in White rather than working my new work-in-progress.

Speaking of which, I better get back to that. My narrators are waiting, and they all have something scandalous to report.




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