Monday, June 15, 2015
June 15, 2015: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: Killing Mr. Watson
[Each of the last few years, I’ve helped kick off summer with a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. If it ain’t broke and all, so here’s this year’s edition! Please share your responses and beach read nominees for a weekend post that’ll put its toes in the sand!]
On the atmospheric historical thriller that’s also a lot more.
As always I’d welcome any corrections to this opinion in the comments, but I don’t think we’ve really had a great cultural representation of the Everglades yet. Such a unique, evocative American space and landscape, full of prehistoric monsters and uncharted islands and bizarre subcultures, and the closet thing I can think of to a work of art that really engages with that setting in a central way is the film Wild Things (1998; and I know I’m stretching the phrase “work of art” to the breaking point with that one, although it is actually a pretty smart, fun thriller). Even the real-life story of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the woman who almost single-handedly helped save and preserve the Everglades from development and construction in the 1940s and 50s, would make for a compelling novel or screenplay.
Well, it turns out that a great historical thriller was indeed written about the ‘Glades a couple decades ago, and somehow I didn’t hear a thing about it until my favorite book recommender sent me a copy earlier this year. That novel is Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson (1990), a historical mystery based on a much-mythologized, almost undocumented figure from the early 20 century and the many Florida lives, families, and communities impacted by his combination of entrepeneurship and outlaw tyranny. Much like Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, Mattheissen’s novel weds an impressive historical re-creation (of a far more distant time and place than Locke’s 1980s Houston) with page-turning mystery and suspense, making for a pitch-perfect beach read from which you can also learn a lot about this evocative and again under-represented American place and world. If it were just all that, it would be plenty for me to recommend it as the week’s first AmericanStudies Beach Read.
But in his inventive and compelling use of perspective and narration, Matthiessen adds another significant layer to his novel. As he moves across the book’s different and characters and communities, Matthiessen creates their first-person perspectives, sometimes in narrations to an outside interviewer, sometimes in written documents, always evoking their individual voices and identities just as fully as he does either Mister Watson or the Everglades setting. These first-person voices are interspersed with glimpses into the saga of that interviewer, investigating Watson and through him exploring these historical worlds and mysteries as a result. Through this structural and stylistic inventiveness, Matthiessen has created a novel that truly captures a wide and deep swath of the identities and communities present in that unique American space, and one that stands as a great American novel without losing any of that page-turning, local color appeal. Now that’s a good beach read!
Next Beach Read tomorrow,
PS. Other Beach Reads you’d share?