Death of a Writer: A mystery deep with poetry

I was floored by this Michael Collins mystery, captivated by its lyricism and intrigued by its plot. A novel nominated for the National Book Award turns out to be eerily similar to the real-life murder of a teenager. But it was written before her death.

Suspicion naturally falls on the writer. But he is  lying in a coma after trying to kill himself in his despair as a burnt-out writer and English teacher at an American liberal arts college.

The detective in charge of the case questions:

  • the beautiful graduate student who found the manuscript hidden in the writer’s home after he tried to commit suicide;
  • a bestselling author and friend of the writer who helped to get the book published;
  • the victim’s elder sister and her former boyfriend;
  • the college photographer who had been with the writer on the day he tried to kill himself; and 
  • a local policeman.

Each seems to have something to hide.

The writer bequeathed all his possessions to the graduate student, who is writing a thesis on him. The writer’s friend is in love with the student. They both gain if the book wins the award. The murdered girl was jealous of her elder sister and had sexual relations with her former boyfriend. The local policeman was in love with the sister and jealous of her former boyfriend. The college photographer held a grudge against the writer.

But this is not just a murder mystery. Michael Collins also explores the frustrations of writers, academics and small-town Americans.

The detective, Jon Ryder, thinking about his marital and financial problems, is filled with a deep sadness. He was, he realises, “born in the dying breath of American blue-collar life”.

The writing often rises to poetry.

Here is Ryder looking at a video showing the victim, Amber, and her sister, Kim,  – to whom he is attracted – and Kim’s former boyfriend, Gary:

In the silence of the small office, Ryder rubbed his eyes and yawned and tried to put aside the dream that had not felt like a dream at the motel, while on the wall of his office a home video played of Amber and Kim on a trampoline going head over heels in bikini tops and terrycloth shorts on a hot summer day, the accompanying sound a static-filled commentary by Gary Scholl.

The detective eventually solves the case. But the writer, the suspected killer, never learns whether he was acquitted or indicted. The story ends just like the title promised:

E Robert Pendleton succumbed to pneumonia one late fall afternoon of 1995, ending a Rip Van Winkle existence. He never woke up, slept through his novel gathering the National Book Award, right on through the historic collapse of the Berlin Wall and the infamous tank incident at Tienanmen Square, through the ethnic cleansing and mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, through the tribal machete genocide of eight hundred thousand Rwandans,

Pendleton’s passing coincided with another Bannockburn Homecoming Weekend and was marked by the AP wire, which led with the same jaded Bannockburn quip, describing the game as “Non-Believers vs. True Believers, where tradition sees Bannockburn students hold up past scores while Carlton College students hold up numbered scripture references.

This is a murder mystery which is also a social commentary sometimes verging on elegy. Read it before it goes out of print.

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