Tim O'Brien's "In the Lake of the Woods" (1994) is a murder mystery. Maybe.
It's also so hypnotic and compelling that I read the whole 300-page book yesterday morning -- the first time in ages that I've read straight through a novel.
In it, a guy running for U.S. senator gets stomped after the media learn that he'd witnessed an atrocity in Vietnam back in 1968. He never told anyone about it, including his wife. He'd even gone to some lengths to erase the fact that he'd ever been there.
He and his wife retreat to a cabin at the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota after the election, in an attempt to repair their marriage.
That's where the murder happens. Maybe.
O'Brien's pretty tricky about this from the start. "Maybe" is the word used most often in the novel, and most of the last half of the book is purely speculative -- what may have happened to the guy and his wife at the cabin in the woods, and after.
The only problem is that the murder scene is much more compelling and believable than the other chapters that speculate about what happened to the man and his wife, both of whom end up disappearing.
I never doubted for a second that the wife was murdered. The husband does, though -- at one point he dives into the lake to search for her ... but he looks in the wrong place, and some part of him must realize this. Then he pulls his own disappearing act.
In terms of its grip on the reader, this is one of the best Vietnam-aftermath novels I've ever read -- right up there with Peter Straub's "Koko." O'Brien not only gets inside his characters, he also reminds us that human motivation is often a complete mystery -- just as Straub often does.
But if you're looking for a novel where everything is resolved, and all your questions are answered at the end, you won't find that here. As O'Brien reminds us, sometimes the mystery at the heart of the story is what keeps us interested.
I have two other O'Brien novels in the house -- the Vietnam novels "The Things They Carried" and "Going After Cacciato." I'll be checking them out.