Mona Simpson’s ‘Casebook’ seeks to untangle family ties

When his mother begins getting serious about her new boyfriend, 15-year-old Miles Adler-Hart does what any good citizen of L.A. would do: He hires a private detective.

“Casebook,” the sixth novel by Mona Simpson, focuses on divorce and its aftermath through the eyes of Miles, who himself is a budding expert in espionage. The book opens with him at 9 lying in wait under his parents’ bed gazing up at the box springs’ “gray dust towers, in globular, fantastic formations.” He hopes to find out if he’ll be allowed to watch the TV show “Survivor,” but he learns much more than he bargained for. His father admits his attraction to other women, and his mother reveals that she is deeply unhappy.

This information is a jolt to Miles’ privileged life. Until now he has lived in the protected world of his progressive school, Cottonwood, whose motto reads “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Does it improve upon the silence?” Simpson renders Miles’ sensibility in close and careful detail. He explains that one of his mother’s friends, Sare, is a “smart person who’d never tried anything too hard for her. She had that confidence and that boredom.” And at night, he writes, the trees shift like “string instruments.”

But divorce in this novel is not a tragedy. Miles is surprised to find that there are even perks to his new life (for example, his mother now brings him breakfast on a tray). Instead, divorce serves as the inciting incident that launches his search for truth. Divorce cuts through the mundane, the unexamined, and leads Miles into unknown emotional terrain.

He becomes, like so many kids before him, a scientist of love — able, with the distance divorce brings, to see his aloof TV-writer father as a “halfhearted” person who putters around his house in “cozy pants” and can’t bear the smallest amount of anxiety, and his mother, an intense, thoughtful mathematician, as potentially gullible.


He calls his mother, Irene, “the Mims,” and becomes fixated on each new shade of her emotions. Even the sayings she writes on the kitchen blackboard — “Some infinities are bigger than others” and “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer” — are read, by him, like scripture. Though we see the Mims only through her son’s eyes, she and all the other adult characters are carefully calibrated and spring to life.

When the Mims starts to date the mysterious animal-loving Eli Lee, Miles and his best friend, Hector, rev up their snooping skills. The new relationship makes Miles feel unsafe, “as if wolves were biting at our walls.”

Dirt is dug on Eli. It’s to Simpson’s credit that the search resonates as both a son’s oversized mistrust for his mother’s new lover and the possibility that Eli may be the balm for this family’s self-involvement. Eli makes the Mims promise she’ll take up bird watching and if things work out between them, that they will go to church. He at first seems like a more present and loving partner than Miles’ father. But there is also something off about him. His love proclamations are over the top. “No matter what ever happens I am, and I will always be in love with Irene Adler,” he toasts at her birthday party. And in a disturbing scene, when Miles’ little sister has an allergic reaction to his dog, Eli is more concerned with the dog than the child.

Miles and Hector read Sherlock Holmes to study his investigation techniques. They buy a listening device at Radio Shack. They pore over Eli’s story for “discrepancies.” When Miles catches a glimpse of Eli, who supposedly lives in Washington, D.C., at a Santa Monica Starbucks, he realizes he is out of his depth and seeks out the help of an expert. Enter private eye Ben Orion.

“Casebook” is both a detective story and a coming-of-age novel — a hybrid of “Harriet the Spy” and Chandler’s Phillip Marlow books. Orion is a 21st century dick, a well-built man who looks like Tom Cruise and is obsessed with Japanese wood cuts. His main assignments concern vetting reality-TV stars and protecting starlets from their stalkers. Orion, unlike Miles’ Dad or Eli, has the ability to both face danger and unmask fraud. He is also frank with Miles. “What is it you really want to find out?”

Who couldn’t use a detective to solve the mystery of their relationships? But background checks and criminal records can’t address Miles’ deepest concerns about his mother’s intimate life. Sometimes you have to love someone even if you can’t understand how they’re wired or why they do what they do. Eli may not be all he claims, but unmasking him is not the full solution either.

Miles accepts life’s unfairness, the limitations of his relationship with his mother and moves closer to his crush, a girl in his school named Ella. But it’s not until he begins to write that he finds his equilibrium. He and Hector create and illustrate a comic book called “Two Sleuths,” which becomes a cult classic.

“Casebook” itself is posited as Miles’ and Hector’s more mature masterwork, an unfinished manuscript that the friends, who now live in different cities, mail back and forth. Miles becomes, in this frame, both writer and character, and the pages more an actual casebook than a novel. Simpson lets go of her own authorship so her character can fully partake in the alchemy she knows so well, of turning pain into prose.

Steinke is the author of “Easter Everywhere” and the forthcoming novel “Sister Goldenhair.”

A novel

Mona Simpson
Alfred A. Knopf: 318 pp., $25.95