I recently read Death Qualified by Kate Wilhelm and Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd. They're rather different books, but they both have a mystery at the heart of them, but aren't exactly mysteries. And my expectations of -- and reactions to -- these two books was quite different. So I thought I'd compare them here.
+++WARNING!+++ There's spoilage ahead, so if you've been meaning to read either of these and don't want to be spoiled, don't read this post!
Death Qualified is about Barbara Holloway, a former defense lawyer who gets sucked into defending a woman who's up on charges of murdering her absentee husband. It's got some sci-fi/fantasy elements to it -- no aliens or unicorns, just an alternate way of interacting with the universe that I will not attempt to explain here. But by and large, it works like a mystery/courtroom drama, trying to establish the client's innocence, figure out who did kill the husband, etc.
Ordinary Thunderstorms also involves a murder. Adam Kincaid, an American scientist in London to apply for a job, accidentally walks in on the freshly-committed murder of a stranger he'd bumped into earlier that day. Suddenly he's wanted for murder, on the run, hiding out with London's homeless. Eventually, he rebuilds a life for himself and the real murderer gets brought to justice.
So, two books, both involving a murder. Neither one is a conventional mystery. And neither one ever reveals the whole plot behind the murder, brings the culprits to justice, or clears the wrongly accused. They're very similar in their open-ended endings.
And yet, I did not like Death Qualified when I'd finished it. I felt let down, unfulfilled. I wanted my good guys to triumph and my bad guys to pay, darn it all! And although Ordinary Thunderstorms had a similar lack of resolution of similar issues, I liked it.
I think it's because, somehow, Death sets itself up as a mystery/courtroom drama with a bit of a supernatural twist. And then it fails to fulfill the rules about solutions or crimes that those kinds of books generally adhere to. Thunderstorms, on the other hand, sets itself up as a literary novel with a mystery as a catalyst but not the central theme of the story. And so I didn't mind not getting a tidy wrap-up at the end because I wasn't expecting one.
However, both books are quite well-written, so I do recommend them both.