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.

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