Mystery #4 for Literary Snobs: Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

51MSG3WEXDL[1]Faulkner flirted with the mystery genre throughout his career — Knight’s Gambit and Intruder in the Dust, for example, along with the screenplay for The Big Sleep,which he wrote. But his finest mystery also happens to be his finest novel.  Absalom  Absalom is, quite simply, a superior detective story and a great work of literature.

The novel opens in 1909 on the eve of Quentin Compson’s departure for his freshman year at Harvard. He is summoned to the home of the elderly Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is convinced that someone is living in the ghostly mansion of Sutpen’s Hundred. She forces Quentin to listen to her story of her wicked brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen — the Kurtz at the heart of this darkness. Thomas Sutpen arrived from parts unknown in the 1830s, deviously acquired one hundred square miles of uncleared land from the Chickasaws, and transformed it into Sutpen’s Hundred, a thriving plantation complete with splendid mansion and socially prominent wife. But his quest to forge a dynasty exploded in a gothic swirl of sex, madness, murder . . . and mystery.

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William Faulkner

There are other versions of the tale, and Quentin hears them as well. The enigmatic figure of Thomas Sutpen haunts him. What was behind his grandiose scheme? Why did his son Henry kill his best friend, who was also his sister’s beau, at the entrance to Sutpen’s Hundred when they returned home from the Civil War? And who is that mysterious stranger living out at Sutpen’s Hundred?

Months later, Quentin and his good-natured Harvard roommate (in the role of Dr. Watson) sift through the clues in their icy dormitory room in the middle of the New England winter as they unravel the mystery of the fall of the House of Sutpen.

The critic Michael Millgate has described Quentin as “a detective of genius, collecting all the available evidence, and then, with the aid of his more matter-of-fact assistant, imaginatively reconstructing what ‘must’ have been the course of events and the pattern of motivation.”

This is one of my favorite novels. Enjoy!

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