Not a whodunit

Not a whodunit

The Book of Mirrors
E O Chirovici
Penguin
2017, pp 336, Rs 499

As with naming or labelling in general, the thriller is a misnomer if it refers to a genre with an exclusive claim to thrill. Shakespeare thrills. Jane Austen thrills! The positioning of E O Chirovici’s English debut novel, The Book of Mirrors, as a thriller is convincing because it comes with the right appeal to the hunger for a titillating story that keeps delaying the end of its search.

Without giving away too much, a stoic introduction should only say that the novel opens with a literary agent receiving a sample from a manuscript and it relates to the events surrounding a murder. The sender or writer of the fragment dies shortly after. The agent starts an investigation into the murder to reconstruct the events and have the book completed. Sit with a checklist and tick off the usual ingredients — false leads, multiple suspects, conflicting versions of events, different conjectures at motivations and so on.

The investigation is relayed from one narratorial voice to another. And while it breaks one’s romantic relationship, it helps build another. Nothing gory about the event per se, but the past in its pre-Internet obscurity (the murder happens in 1987) is a necessary baggage to wrestle with. For a cop who did not do his job well during the investigation, the case opens a new way to find meaning.

In its invocation of the thriller, The Book of Mirrors remains a prisoner of its requirements. Because a thriller is constructed around pace and plot, and the end of it is to discover the truth of what happened, the character takes a back seat. In this novel, too, the different narrators and actors in the incident do not have personalities significantly their own. One character says na’mean more than once. Another one refuses to shorten people’s names. A third one is preoccupied with clarifying the origins of oneself and other characters in specific cities. These are the instances that come the closest to identifying characterisation.

The entity of memories, with the cognates of repression, imagination and trauma, is projected to be at the heart of the murder in the novel. These do provide a mysterious ring to the order of events, but that is too common an idea of discovering and investigating anything from the past. Thrillers, as a whole, flourish on fallibility of things remembered.

There are a few literary references in the novel — two of the epigraphs come from Oscar Wilde and Julian Barnes. Since the outermost context is that of a literary agent, there are references to writers like Faulkner or Proust. Again, that’s the closest the novel comes to the promise of the literary in the praise for and hype around it.

Chirovici calls his work ‘whydunit’ and his term does a good job of identifying that finding the actual culprit is not the only motivation that keeps the reader turning pages. The rush does not stop with the guy who is caught at the end; the climax constitutes equally of the reasons why the crime happens, and even more importantly, how it takes place. How about ‘howdunit’? The process and the circumstances of the crime go a step further in the revelation. But that is semantics.

Perhaps the classic title ‘whodunit’ was not merely a reference to the identification of the perpetrator. The emphasis on the ‘who’ was a genuine interest in the character who had done it. In the race to keep the action going, and protracting suspense, the person gets sacrificed. The figure of the murderer, in general in this genre, has an integrity that the likes of Umberto Eco or Zafon cleverly, sensitively and spookily build upon. It will take more than the packaging of ‘why’ to win the reader’s smile.

Even that ‘why’ representing the seriousness of purpose is not usually an arbitrary personal motive. These motives often involve principles so moving that the criminal becomes the subject of sympathy, rather than the victim. The reader’s investment in the story symbolises a lot more than looking forward to the destination of resolution. The motion of pages ought to be treated with discoveries and pleasures of all kinds — horror, surprise or disappointment. The Book of Mirrors seems incomplete in this progression of passion. Storytelling is confused with reins of events.

Surprisingly, and cheerfully, this novel brings a lot of good news to the author whose prior work exists only in Romanian. It has already been grabbed for publication in different countries and languages. The success in terms of a seven-figure sum, reported by The Guardian, could bring a greater sense of freedom to Chirovici. What greater relief than this to explore possibilities of a greater story?

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