Sunday 25 February 2018

Clever whodunnit that feels slightly askew

Crime: The Book of Mirrors, EO Chirovici, Century, tpbk, 323 pages, €14.99

The Book of Mirrors by E O Chirovici
The Book of Mirrors by E O Chirovici
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The Book of Mirrors comes with a backstory almost worth a novel in itself. This mystery is the English language debut of EO Chirovici, a bestselling author in his native Romania.

After rejection by a host of publishers and agents, the book was accepted by a small American press but - plot twist - they didn't feel they could do it justice, and encouraged Chirovici to try again with the majors. Within a few days he had a UK agent, who sold the book to 38 countries worldwide.

It's in that category of "domestic noir": think Gone Girl, Girl on the Train or, in Irish terms, Liz Nugent's Unravelling Oliver. So it's easy to understand Chirovici's success: those books currently sell like gangbusters.

You could also see this being adapted for the screen. The story, while complicated, can be reduced to a bite-sized Hollywood tag-line: "Murder, madness and memory-loss in academia."

The murder takes place in Princeton, that iconic American college town, though the story begins in New York, where literary agent Peter Katz receives a partial manuscript from advertising executive Richard Flynn. This forms one of three first-person narratives; the others are the recollections of investigative reporter John Keller and ex-cop Roy Freeman.

In short: Flynn was a student at Princeton in the late 1980s, where he fell in love with fellow student Laura Baines and came to know her mentor, Professor Joseph Wieder. A few months later, the brilliant but manipulative Wieder is beaten to death; the list of suspects is long.

It could be Flynn, jealously suspecting a fling between the Prof and Laura. Or Laura, angry that Wieder wouldn't give her equal credit on an upcoming book. Or Derek Simmons, a handyman who'd beaten murder charges 20 years earlier on an insanity plea and now suffers retrograde amnesia. The case was never solved; Flynn's manuscript claims to know whodunnit. Unfortunately, he's about to die of cancer and his partner doesn't know where the rest of the book is. So Katz enlists Keller to investigate.

Laura claims Flynn was delusional. Everyone seems to have a different take on events in 1987. Even Freeman, the detective who originally investigated Wieder's murder, can't help. But Keller's questions spur him to do some digging of his own.

There's much to like about The Book of Mirrors. The story is clever, well-paced and well-constructed (there are a few plot-holes, but nothing large enough to sink the ship). Chirovici's story is just serpentine enough to keep the reader guessing, but not so much so that it gets tangled up in its own strands. What lets it down somewhat is the writing. Obviously, you'd allow leeway for the fact that English isn't Chirovici's first language, but you also have to review a novel on its merits - and the prose doesn't match the storyline.

It's fairly flat overall (a common problem in crime fiction), and the dialogue doesn't always ring true. A slangy word like "dude" gets thrown out by a character who, by age and profession, would never use that term. Roy mentions a trip to "dogged Vancouver" - I think he means doggone? Conversations veer towards reciting exposition rather than their natural cadences and flows. Meanwhile, Laura says at one point: "He'd accumulated so much unhappiness inside that he spread it all around him, like a cuttlefish squirting ink to hide itself." It's a lovely image, but do people really talk like that?

A bigger issue is the vaguely ersatz feeling that hovers over the book. At first, the set-up reminded me of Donna Tartt's Secret History (murder, betrayal, elite college town, etc.), but actually, The Book of Mirrors most closely resembles another publishing sensation, written by a European and set Stateside: Joël Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.

Like that, Chirovici's novel feels somehow inauthentic: an approximation of America, or an idea of it, once removed, not a true or even semi-true expression of the place. The fictional equivalent of Google translate or Japlish, maybe: it's technically correct, and you know what's meant, but it feels slightly askew. Is that enough to put you off a mystery? If not, The Book of Mirrors is a perfectly enjoyable, easy read. If so, maybe wait for the movie version.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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