Review by Annabel
Imagine, it’s the mid-late 1970s, the Independence Day long weekend, and the founder members of an exclusive country/hunting club, West Heart, are gathered in the Club’s extensive grounds where they all have individual retreats and share the impressive Clubhouse. A weekend of booze, pills and adultery for the adults, fun, fireworks, and a huge bonfire for the kids. In addition, they will have a chance to suss out a potential new member who has been invited to visit. He is a very different kind of person to the usual members, but his money would ease the club’s finances, which are severely under pressure. One faction wants to welcome Jonathan Gold, another would rather sell the Club. Another guest that weekend is Adam McAddis, the old college friend of the Blakes’ son, James. McAddis just happens to be a private detective – but is he there with an ulterior motive?
Given that set-up, you just know at least one of them will end up dead and, given that the weather is closing in, we’re likely to have a classic ‘locked room’ situation if the one road in gets blocked. So far, so normal for a murder mystery.
However, and this is where this style of murder mystery will be a ‘marmite’ one, McDorman is not going to tell the story straight at all. Fans of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (reviewed by Harriet, here) will probably accept what McDorman does easily, others may find it an intervention too far… For the author goes all meta on the reader, in his guise as narrator addressing the reader directly throughout the novel, supposedly helping them to solve the mystery, and it is clear right from the start that this is an unconventional tale:
This murder mystery, like all murder mysteries, begins with the evocation of what the reader understands to be its atmosphere, the accumulation of small, curated details to create a shared myth of mood, time, and place – although not all at once, of course, that is important. The writer of murder, like all writers, must be a miser, conceding revelations bit by bit; for every novel is a puzzle and every reader a sleuth.
He goes on to eke out some initial facts, the protagonist (who is our detective) is passenger in a car with an 8-track and they’re listening to Wings’ “Let ‘Em In”, the passenger and driver are sharing a joint, and are dressed from a previous era. We’re already anchored firmly in the mid-1970s. A few pages later, the writer has fun describing the others there for the weekend when they all meet in the Clubhouse for drinks:
The celebrants are dressed in the browns and oranges and yellows and baby blues of the day, a collective aesthetic that this writer evidently thinks is best described by proper nous and trademark symbols: Wear-Dated® Acrilan® trousers with Sansabelt® technology, lightweight Orlon® acrylic sweaters, Fortrel® polyester jeans, PERMA-PREST® double-knit slacks of cotton and Dacron® polyester with Ban-Rol® waistband linings, Trevira® and Kodel® polyester slacks, Ban-Lon® polos, jerseys of mercerized Durene® cotton, Ultriana® knit button-up shirts, Arnel® triacetate print short-sleeve shirts, Avril® nylon skirts, Nyesta® double-knit tops of ®Antron® nylon, Quiana® silk blouses, SANI-GARD® socks inside wedge-heel Kraton® thermoplastic rubber sole shoes, Porvair® poromeric gator-look vamps . . .
That made me giggle, having worked for an American company that owned a few of those TMs.
McDorman has more writerly tricks up his sleeve, here are just a few of them.
- Close to the beginning of the novel, we get a digression from the story for a look at the ‘Rules’ of mystery writing, which Agatha Christie routinely broke, He includes Borges, Calvino and the Oulipo school in the discussion (one of whom devised the “S+7” method, ‘in which every noun is replaced by the seventh noun that follows it in the dictionary, and McDorman rewrites the first paragraph quoted above for us). In particular, he also includes some of those authors who break the fourth wall, like Ellery Queen, and Kingsley Amis in his Riverside Villas Murder.
- Several times, when the plot reaches a particular point, McDorman breaks off from the narrative to give us an illustration from a classic noir like John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room, or ‘The Flitcraft Parable’ from Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.
- We get a questionnaire at the end of the day after the first corpse is discovered.
- Having a detective on hand, who better to lead the questioning, which is presented as Q&As.
- In later questions, the READER takes the detective role and the text is presented as a play script, complete with stage directions.
All the while the writer is nudging the reader, talking directly to you as you read. There are some big shocks, some great twists, and as for the ending . . .
I did wonder where all the other club members were on the big weekend – presumably, they’d seen the weather forecast and made Independence Weekend plans at home facilitating the mystery!
The big question remains though is the narrator reliable? Hmm! I couldn’t possibly comment. If you can cope with the rather Smart Alec demeanour of the narrator, this may be a mystery for you. It did take a little while to warm to, but once it hooked me, I raced through the book and as a reader who generally enjoys meta-fiction, I found its structure fascinating. A great first novel from US TV producer McDorman.
Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.
Dann McDorman, West Heart Kill (Raven, 2023). 978-1526666222, 288pp., hardback.
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