April 2015

Will George


An Exaggerated Murder: A Novel by Josh Cook

I envy murder mystery writers. They get to arrange people's deaths, and they can scheme it with an eagerness totally unhealthy in most of us. True, their victims are imaginary. But to plot a decent murder story -- dig into all the fantasy forensics, the motives, the autopsies, the grisly weapons -- I think you need enough morbidity to land an ordinary person in an institution. I wish I could be that deviant and get away with it. So I have to be jealous of those writers who, heads full of slaughter, with the utmost self-restraint manage to pick up a pen instead of a revolver, axe, or bludgeon.

An Exaggerated Murder, the debut novel by Josh Cook, downplays the lethality of the conventional murder story -- the reports of this murder have been greatly exaggerated -- in favor of a close study of the mystery aspect: the whodunit, the whydunit, the what'sthepointofallofit. Its depth and difficulty surely make it one of the most high-minded detective stories in years. Replete with extended discussions of Joyce and Poe, An Exaggerated Murder parodies the mystery genre in order to raise some sticky theoretical questions. How do you know whether what seems to be a clue really is one? What's the relationship between clues and evidence? What if the perp deliberately leaves red herrings, or even legitimate clues -- must those be less trustworthy than clues left by accident? How does a clue in a crime scene compare to a clue in a book about crime? Are literary clues (obscure allusions, for example) just fiction's counterparts to real-life clues, or does the fact that they're contrived by an author make them intrinsically suspicious?

The satire kicks off with a premise right out of the game of Clue: someone did it overnight in the study, as the butler infers from a nasty bloodstain (there is no body) and the coincident disappearance of the seeming victim, one Mr. Joyce. Mr. Joyce, a reclusive zillionaire with a Ulysses fixation, has perversely stocked the crime scene with "an archaeological magazine featuring a cover story about Troy," "an image of a three-masted ship," "a minotaur figurine," a map of Dublin, and so on. Some of these may count as forensic evidence; the rest are purely literary references. It wouldn't be worth sorting out if not for the anonymous reward: five million dollars "for the safe return of Joyce and/or the capture and conviction of his kidnappers or kidnapper or murderers or murderer." There's a catch: the reward decreases by $50,000 each day. The Joyce Case goes unsolved. Of course, this might be an exaggerated kidnapping too. Has the eccentric Mr. Joyce abstracted himself and offered his own reward? If so, why?

Enter one Trike Augustine, private detective, enigmatic hero. Speaking in riddles such as "Better safe than keeling over while loosening bituminous sands into an over-capacity refiner" and "Taps on hospital doors are not apt to be tentative," this baffling character has a magnificent way of doubling the mystery he tries to solve. "Genius" is not a word to throw around lightly, so let's just say Trike is massively cognitively endowed. He has a photographic memory. He has Sherlock Holmesian deductive powers and a phonebook-thick CV of solved cases: The Case of the Precarious Philatelist, The Case of the Cemetery Cognac, The Misplaced Malice Murders, The Case of the Left-Over Shaving Lather, The Case of the Guy Who Didn't Get The Maltese Falcon. He's also a literary critic, unrepentant drunk, and brilliant pseudophilosopher. Much of the fascination of An Exaggerated Murder comes from the development of this unique sleuth and the peeks into his roiling mind:

I have thousands of thoughts knitting themselves into a sweat-and-vomit-soaked blanket of intellectual frustration. A bog of possibilities. A swamp of equally irrational solutions. An algae slick of suspicions hiding a tangled, rotting, neutrally buoyant morass of mundane detritus, solidified toxins, dead sea life, and wild speculation... On top of it all, my brain threads the thin trails of spider silk of my efforts across the problem that never build into patterns, never remain long enough to be progress, never stabilize enough to be mistaken for temporary paths through the dark-and-noise-ridden fairy-tale forest of this mystery.

When Trike receives a dead pig on his floor and a brick through his window, The Joyce Case grows personal. Now the story sinks into increasing perplexity -- and obscurity -- as the PI sifts through countless clues, red herrings, and red herrings of red herrings, apparently laid specifically for him by the murderer(s), abductor(s), or the provoking Mr. Joyce.

Cook is up-front about the obscurantism in this book -- "obfuscating the information because obfuscation is the point," he says. Fair enough: after all, mysteries are supposed to mystify. But what if the mystery lacks a satisfying independent motive or purpose? What if it's just mystery for its own sake? Writing of "a psychopath's compulsion to leave clues," Cook reminds us that a seeming clue need not point to anything significant, that clues can be the spurious issue of an obsession, as of a guy who decorates his house with gratuitous Ulysses references, or a guy who decorates his novel with gratuitous Homeric references.

At one point, Trike says something stronger and more contentious. Reflecting on all the clues, pseudo-clues, and pseudo-pseudo-clues laid to misdirect the PI: "Joyce [the character] has created a system of information exchange that is the opposite of communication... All data... no meaning." I doubt we can quite make sense of this as stated, but the intention was probably along the following lines: Even when a putative forensic clue or a literary allusion genuinely refers to something relevant to the crime or book, it can still be sufficiently off-message as to be practically pointless. It's not quite that a clue can lack meaning: if it has no meaning, it's not a genuine clue. Still, successfully following up a clue or allusion doesn't guarantee an increased understanding of the surrounding information -- although in conventional mystery stories, clues are usually arranged so that that blissfully and satisfyingly happens. In other contexts clues and literary references can be so clumsy as to be entirely unilluminating.

When I got through the first 85% of An Exaggerated Murder, I was startled to find a full-length half-serious essay on Poe's "The Purloined Letter" starting on page 317. In this strongly postmodern touch, Trike Augustine proposes a reading of the classic detective yarn that disagrees with Poe's narrator on many substantial points. This skeptical interpretation considers that either Poe or at least his narrator simply lies his way through the entire story. Nifty but disconcerting in context. I think that the deployment of this mock essay virtually instructs the reader of An Exaggerated Murder to disbelieve much of its narration, which ordinarily would be taken at face value. In other words, Cook all but asserts that the previous 85% of the book was nothing but a big red herring. That's just my interpretation, so I don't think I've spoiled anything. If I have, don't worry. There are plenty of reasons to enjoy this finely written though deliberately confusing book.

The description can be fearlessly high-caliber:

The smoke curled around a lamppost like the ghost of a fatigued constrictor remembering the trunk of a sheared jungle tree above a strange ape stalking, in tentative steps, across the concrete mass of interstitial habitats, a scentless, soundless prey persistently too distant to capture.

The writing features ample stylistic variations, including unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness prose, verbal diagrams, and two-column and four-column layouts. You can puzzle over a welter of unattributed quotations, allusions to allusions of Joyce, and all the cryptic pronouncements of Trike Augustine. Then there are the amusing supporting characters -- a butler preoccupied with knitting, the hard-nosed but myopic cop named Horn-Rims, a mayor stereotype who unselfconsciously appears in a tailcoat and spats. And I can't overlook the resurgent vein of humor. Withdrawing from an awkward conversation, a librarian stammers, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm locked in a death feud with entropy and cannot be further detained." On the prospect of a rejection notice, Trike reflects, "I suppose I could be proud they spent the time and money to reject me...but I choose to be bitter and indignant." Though An Exaggerated Murder reads better as genre satire than as humorous fiction -- paradigms of the latter tend to shoot for more laughs per page -- it's evenly spangled with wit.

Meticulously planned and content-rich, this sophisticated, variegated study in overthinking -- a pleasant hash of detective fiction and lit crit -- ranks with the best upmarket mysteries by Iain Pears and Umberto Eco.

An Exaggerated Murder: A Novel by Josh Cook
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612194271
336 pages