Listen, Jena, old photographs are often beautiful and almost always creepy. I think they fall in the uncanny valley: convincingly human, but something in the color and unsmiling faces strikes us as alien. Ransom Riggs has taken the eerie, lonely feeling of looking at these images and made a book out of it: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. It's good but sadly, like every good detective novel, it solves all its mysteries and shows all its monsters.
The beginning of a mystery is always the best. An unopened letter, a masked man, a crime seemingly impossible except by something supernatural, this is the stuff of the first half of good stories. In perhaps the greatest detective story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle masterfully sets up a threat that is so convincingly supernatural that we begin to suspect Sherlock Holmes might really have to contend with a ghost.
The atmosphere of that possibility is so pleasurable, and Holmes' solution so clever, we almost forget how sad it is for a mystery to be solved. Almost. The truth is no solution can be as fun as the mystery. The answer will almost always disappoint, and writers have to bolster their final narrative with something beside simple revelation. J.K. Rowling did this beautifully, book after book.
In Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs contends with that problem. As the protagonist's grandfather tells him fantastic stories and shows him strange, old photographs, the combination of the photograph's creepiness and sense of mystery is almost overwhelming. I read the first chapters of this book as hungrily as I always read the first chapter of Great Expectations and The Half-Blood Prince. Then, halfway through the book, suddenly, the mystery disappears, and the story shifts into supernatural adventure.
I can't fault Riggs for providing answers to the questions I asked by turning the page but unlike Doyle, who suggests the supernatural and then grounds it in the real world with the solution, Riggs takes the whispers of possibility, the whiff of magic, and confirms every suspicion. Any shadow that might hide a little black-and-white monster indeed does. I was further disappointed by an open ending, clearly setting up for sequels (which I will buy and read).
I'm glad someone made a story around this photographs, I just wish the ending had kept some of the first half's closet-shadow light touch. I get the sense Riggs started this book with darkness in mind, and then rethought the ending a bit for the sake of that lucrative young adult market. Would I recommend the book? I'll likely read it again sometime, if only to look at the pictures again.
Virginia Wolff wrote that "it is pleasant to be afraid when we are conscious that we are in no danger." Therein lies the chief pleasure of Riggs' little novel. The old photographs are all authentic, it turns out, with only minor adjustments. The book is worth reading and owning for its value as, if nothing else, a sketch of the foggy pleasure of looking at ancient pictures. It's hard to imagine these people in color, hard to imagine them laughing, hard to realize they were here and will never be again.