Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Book of Murder: Guillermo Martínez

My records tell me I read Guillermo Martínez’s The Oxford Murders almost exactly two years ago. My memory tells me I was not overly impressed with it. Nevertheless, I still picked up the author’s second book, The Book of Murder. And read it. And I don’t regret it.

The plot is interesting. A series of seemingly accidental deaths occur in the family of Luciana B, a “girl who took dictation”, as she is quaintly described. Her boyfriend gets drowned, her parents die after consuming some poisonous mushrooms and the care home where her grandmother lives is set on fire as part of a series of arson attacks in the town. So what is mysterious about these deaths?

For starters, Luciana’s boyfriend is a lifeguard, and he gets drowned on a fairly normal un-stormy day, with no evidence of any other weather-related quirk or personal disability. Possibly his coffee was drugged?

Her parents pick mushrooms from the same spot every year for their anniversary, for the same mushroom pie her mother considers her special recipe, her father endures and the rest of the family suffer. This ritual has been going on for years. So how did the mushrooms change character this time round?

The series of arson attacks in the town were all targeted at small furniture stores through the town. With one exception: the one on the care home where Luciana’s grandmother lived.

And Luciana believes that her sister Valentina is the next target. Target of whom? Is there a connection at all between the different incidents?

Yes, reckons Luciana. She is sure she knows the murderer: her one-time employer and famous author Kloster. What convinces her of this? Because she believes she was in a sense responsible for the death of Kloster’s young daughter. And this was Kloster's way of extracting revenge.

Luciana worked with Kloster in the past, taking dictation for his books. For quite a while, the relationship was purely professional and they didn’t even touch one another. And then one day, Kloster cannot resist the allure of Luciana’s neck (as much a character in the book as anyone else, more on that later) and makes an advance. For reasons best known to herself, Luciana resists, makes a row and leaves Kloster’s service. On the advice of her mom and an overzealous counsellor, Luciana initiates legal proceedings against Kloster (and gets ample monetary recompense). When Kloster’s shrew of a wife gets to hear of it, she gets a divorce from Kloster and takes away their daughter. And the daughter dies in her bath because of the mother’s carelessness.

What’s the truth? That’s the climax in the book.

So what makes The Book of Murder worth a read?

Brief in presence, significant in impact and charming and unique as a mannerism, Luciana’s neck deserves the first slot.

. . . this was her pattern from then on: a kiss on arrival, her little bag dropped, almost thrown, beside the sofa, two hours of dictation, coffee and a brief smiling conversation in the narrow kitchen, two more hours’ work, and, at a certain point, unfailingly, the bending of her head to one side then the other, half painfully, half seductively, and the sharp crack of her vertebrae.

Guillermo Martínez, the author, is a PhD in mathematics. This aspect perhaps stood a bit more pronounced in The Oxford Murders. Here, however, he seems to find his literary voice. That he managed to carry the entire book through with just three characters of significance is ample testimony to this. It has helped him pace the narratives, define the characters sharply, warts and all, and enabled a tight focus on the action. Not least of all is the character of the narrator, another albeit less-successful author for whom Luciana had worked briefly for some time. He manages to be as much part of the narrative as a neutral chronicler of events. His personal thoughts tend to echo the readers’.

When I just finished the book, I got the feeling that, Martínez, not unlike Martin Amis in Night Train had trouble finishing a book. I remembered a similar feeling with The Oxford Murders. But on reflection, I reckon the ending is perhaps one of the successes of The Book of Murder. With a plot like this, any of the three obvious endings one kept conjecturing through the book would have been a tad predictable and more than a touch disappointing. So while the ending is not what you would expect in a typical whodunit, it is unexpected in its own right.

The Oxford Murders has apparently been made into a movie. The writing style clearly suggests the author expects the same here as well – the screenplay-like style in the narrative is unmissable. But heck, as long as it is a good read, why do I care?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans: Luis Fernando Verissimo

It breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction, if such rules are indeed sacrosanct. (No, I’m not telling you which one it breaks, lest I be accused of a similar act.) The plot is almost entirely dependent on the misinterpretations of the narrator, and those are more than a touch amateurish. The style is epistolatory, which means there is a bit too much of the narrator in the narrative. Despite all that, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans is a delightful read.

A simple linear locked-room murder mystery on the face of it, Borges is in the form of a series of letters from the narrator (identified just as Seňor Vogelstein) to Jorge Luis Borges, who also plays the “detective” and solves the mystery in the end and “writes” the last letter, the classical denouement. Edgar Allan Poe is an integral element of the book and forms the backdrop and “contributes” to the references.

The narrator, a wide-eyed admirer of both Borges and Poe (in that order), is a fifty-year old who has led a cloistered life, “without adventures or surprises”, who has had a “sheltered life spent among books.” He gets an invitation to attend the 1985 Israfel Society Conference, a meeting of Edgar Allan Poe specialists. There he bumps into, among others, Borges, and then, more significantly (at least as far the plot of this book is concerned), into the corpse of a murdered man. The deciphering of this murder forms the rest of the book.

So what makes Borges such a delightful read?

For one, there is the richness of the inter-textual references, dominated, surprise surprise, by Borges and Poe. Including the obvious ones of the orang-utan and the raven of Poe and the labyrinth, the mirrors and most significantly, the tail, of Borges, Verissimo goes deep, especially into Borges’ writings, making it clear what the objective of the book is: an unashamed tribute to the Argentinean great. These references, especially when they appear in the conversations, both about the murder and otherwise, form the backbone of the book and its raison d’être.

The light-hearted tone that prevails throughout is another reason that contributes to the success of Borges. Here, the narrative style adopted by Verissimo comes in handy. A letter lets you be personal, opinionated and expressive, and that is what Verissimo is in this book. The result: you get the feeling you’re listening to a fireside story. Of course, the tenseness of a murder investigation is missing, but then, this is not your typical murder mystery – the unravelling of the crime is almost incidental to the overall objective of the book.

A third, possibly related aspect of the book is the role of the narrator. Apart from being the reporter on the scene, he also is one of the main investigators (such as they are); he acts as Borges’ mouthpiece; and he is a bit more than all that.

Luis Fernando Verissimo is not exactly a household name whereabouts I live or come from. So why did I pick up Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans? Was Borges the attraction? Was it Poe? Or was it a wild hunch? Whatever it was, it was a worthy pick. Few things in life are more pleasurable than a chance pick turning out to be a riveting read. And Borges was precisely that. If only Verissimo had used a different technique than the narrator confusing the position of the dead body successively as X, O, W, M and ◊, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans could well have become a real classic.