September 2011

Elizabeth Urello

fiction

Hound by Vincent McCaffrey

Dashiell Hammett, Chandler, Cain, Bess Streeter Adrich, Vicki Baum, Dorothy Canfield, Fanny Hurt, Mark Twain, Trollope, Yeats, Robert Graves, Shakespeare, Updike, Nick Tosches, Tom Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Kipling, Henry James, Thornton Wilder, Joseph Conrad, Elmer Kelton, Claire Huffaker, Jack Schaefer, Owen Wister: these authors are all name-checked by page twenty-five of Vincent McCaffrey's debut mystery novel Hound. The pivotal dead body, on the other hand, doesn't show up until page seventy-nine. Clearly, McCaffrey is after an elevation of genre here, a literary mystery, and he succeeds in subject matter if not in form.

McCaffrey shares literary obsession with his hero, Boston-based bookseller Henry Sullivan (for nearly 30 years, McCaffrey ran the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Abington, Massachusetts). Henry is a man obsessed with dying and death, though not necessarily with his own. The novel opens on a depressed Henry in his favorite watering hole with his two best friends, pouring one out for his recently departed landlady. Henry derives his income from the leavings of the dead -- he sells rare old books, most often picked up at estate sales. As is predictable for a man who worships physical books and the brick-and-mortar stores that sell them, Henry is also grieving a swiftly changing world. "Why was all the world he wanted or cared for being destroyed?" he mourns.

Throughout the novel, Henry visits dying bookstores, dying libraries, the dying schoolyard where he once played, dying people fleeing dying towns. The residents of Henry's Boston can no longer afford their lifestyles or their once-treasured properties. The dead bequeath nothing to their descendants but taxes, disagreements, and memories. The world of Hound seems poised on the brink of a shift that its occupants themselves will not survive, and every one of them knows it. Their time has passed.

The mystery portion of the book picks up when a former lover, Morgan Johnson, calls Henry to help her inventory her recently deceased husband's library. The husband, Heber, was a high-profile literary agent, and his collection of signed first editions is worth a mint, but Morgan plans to donate them to Boston University. When Morgan is found murdered in her apartment the morning after Henry leaves it, Henry sets about investigating. The prime suspects are Heber's descendants, his and Morgan's son and a son from a previous marriage, who are both in dire financial straits. With only two suspects, little suspense builds.

In addition to the main mystery, Henry also investigates the death of Helen Mawson, a woman who died at a young age in the '30s. Henry's friend Albert owns a trash removal business and often tips Henry off to caches of abandoned books. They find Mawson's books and correspondence in a sealed attic room in a house Albert is sent to gut. Mawson was a traveler and a writer, but her vibrant life seems to have ended in tragedy, and Henry wonders why. The Mawson subplot is unrelated to the rest of the book, but it serves as something for Henry to dip into leisurely at the end of each day, like a book on the bedside table.

McCaffrey loves books and Boston, and he is at his best when describing either of these. Unfortunately, other aspects of his prose deserve a more invasive edit. No character utters a word without the line of dialogue being preceded by a heavy sigh, a cut of the eyes, a look, an explanation. This pattern becomes irritating, then hypnotic, and finally hilarious. For example:

He managed to say, "Hello."

Her voice lowered with recognition. "Hello."

The moment was short, but many thoughts ran together. "Morgan. How are you?"

She let one of her brief silences go by. She had always been good with silences. "Fine. A little lonely."

He said the obvious. "I heard. I'm really sorry."

This style is not chosen particularly for this halting conversation about loss; rather, it's consistent through the entire book. If you were to make a drinking game out of it, you'd be under the table by the end of the opening bar scene.

Additionally, some of the characters are inconsistently drawn -- Albert, in particular, is impossible to picture -- and prone to awkwardly segueing into long rants about random topics that all seem spoken by the same mouth. Their conversations can be jumpy and bizarre and at times become downright incoherent.

Henry himself, however, is a solid presence throughout -- an observant, steady, slightly self-protective bookworm. And McCaffrey's goal of offering his readers a contemplative, involving whodunit that's more about a man than a murder is a good one. Hound is his first book, and it's the first installment of a trilogy featuring Henry Sullivan. One hopes McCaffrey will refine his writing in future volumes, and book hounds who enjoy thoughtful, quiet mysteries will have more to look forward to.

Hound by Vincent McCaffrey
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 978-1931520256
280 pages