On one hand, when readers ask what a novel is about, it means they're interested.They want to know more, and that, of course, is a good thing. We mystery authors want to intrigue our readers, and interest is flattering. So the impulse is to tell the reader all about the book. The problem with that, of course, is that if one tells too much, one ruins the book for the reader. This is especially a problem if the book is a mystery. So as an author, one has to curb one's impulse to tell the whole story.
On the other hand, if a reader asks what a mystery novel is about, she or he wants to know more than just one or two facts. To say that Publish or Perish is about the sudden death of a graduate student isn't necessarily enough. There's a lot more to it than that, and readers will be a little more engaged if they know a little more, and possibly learn something about the book that will pique their interest.
Many times, publishing companies provide a blurb on the jacket of a book to get the reader's attention. They also give a synopsis of the book on the inside front and back covers. Most people read those synopses before they buy the book (unless, of course, they are particular fans of an author, and would buy anything that author wrote). If you read blurbs, you see that "enough" means telling the reader a little about the victim(s), a little about how the sleuth gets involved, and one or two other things about the book. Here's an example from Stanislaw Lem's The Investigation:
"A young officer at Scotland Yard is assigned to investigate a baffling and eerie case of missing - and appparently resurrected - bodies. Encounters with the chief inspector and
other key figures (a prominent writer, a scientist) supply Lieutenant Gregory with scientific, religious, and philosophical theories, and with a series of poetntial clues - but is there in fact a solution to the mystery? Lem's unique contribution to the detective-mystery genre reflects his fascination with bizarre and random events; it is a disturbing book and its incredible ending will astonish readers."
This synopsis gives the reader a sense of place and the general topic of the book, and tells the reader something about the action in the novel. In my opinion, it doesn't tell quite enough; I think it's important to give the reader enough information so that she or he can make a connection to the book, and I'm not sure this does.
By contrast, here's the synopsis from Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. This synopsis catches the reader's attention right away:
"Linnet Ridgeway has almost everything: youth, beauty, style and wealth. What she doesn't have, she takes. For instance, her best friend Jackie de Bellefort's fiance. Unfortunately, forgiveness is not a jilted bride's privilege. And when the deliriously happy couple embark on their honeymoon cruise along the Nile, nothing can keep Jackie from their shadows. And no one - not even detective Hercule Poirot- can prevent a crime of passion. But, faced with the suspect's airtight alibi, can even he prove who did it?"
Of course, I am a Christie fan, so perhaps I'm biased, but this synopsis seems the perfect balance between giving the reader helpful and intriguing information, and giving the reader too much.
I'm sure that mystery reviewers and bloggers face much the same challenge that I do: how much to tell the reader about a book without spoiling the experience for the reader. It's also a challenge, I'm sure to decide how to be honest about one's rating, or impression, of a book while still being balanced and fair.
What do you look for in a synopsis? Do you like a lot of information? Do you like just a few facts? What kind of synopsis gets you to read a book?