(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mysteries of Winterthurn is divided into three parts, each several chapters in length. Although the principal characters remain the same, each part is centered on a different murder mystery occurring at three crucial points in the life of Xavier Kilgarvan, a detective cast in the mold of such nineteenth century masters as Sherlock Holmes.

Emulating narrative techniques of the nineteenth century, Oates presents her tale through an “Editor,” a first-person omniscient narrator who not only tells the story but also comments directly to the reader. This commentary is found in chapters entitled “Editor’s Notes” and “Epilogue” and also throughout the narrative in the direct address so much in favor with nineteenth century novelists. The Editor’s identity is never revealed.

The novel’s three mysteries involve puzzling killings, often multiple, that take place in eerie circumstances. Each mystery also serves further to reveal the deep, dark, and complex passion that exists between Xavier and his beautiful cousin Perdita. There is throughout an air of the supernatural, of a tragic family curse extending over several generations, and of a complex union of good and evil. The first mystery, entitled “The Virgin in the Rose Bower,” centers on the horrific death of an infant in the so-called Honeymoon Suite of Glen Marw Manor, the ancestral home of the Kilgarvans. Once presided over by Erasmus Kilgarvan, sometime judge of the local district court, Glen Marw Manor is now the domain of Georgina Kilgarvan, the eldest cousin of Xavier, a never-married poet of considerable accomplishment whose pen name, “Iphigenia,” recalls the ancient Greek myth of a father’s betrayal. Living with Georgina are her two younger half-sisters, Thérèse and Perdita, and her elderly bachelor...

(The entire section is 742 words.)