The majority of current crime fiction adheres to a well-worn template, even if writers don’t admit as such. A murder turns carefully crafted order into chaos, and the process of investigation not only unearths how deep those layers of chaos are but also restores a sense of order with the murder’s solution -- however illusory. Nowadays, that template acts as a bass line for the progression of a variety of character-driven melodies and harmonies based on plot and setting, and the whiff of formula is fading into the background of literary chord progressions. Today’s readers are invested more in human behavior at its most extreme than in the intellectual exercises of a previous age of mystery that we call a Golden one.
Stretching this musical metaphor as tight as piano wire during a particularly vexing tuning session, if mystery fiction has had its Baroque and Classical ages already, what era is the genre in now? The many heirs to Raymond Chandler suggest Romanticism, as do the plethora of serial killer novels with their affinity for blood and rising body counts. Modernism emerges with the social crime fiction of Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and, most recently, Tana French. Or perhaps, like 21st century music, 21st century crime fiction is all about neo: neo-classical (Louise Penny), neo-noir (original work published by Hard Case Crime) and neo-romantic (the renewed popularity of historical mystery set during the first Romantic Age).
So what of those with a more avant-garde leaning, those who derive pleasure from taking apart the usual structures and blending them together in a post-modern smoothie? Literary fiction offers many flavors of fiction-reality blurring, from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” to Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Mulligan Stew” to the recent work of David Markson, all masterful and entertaining examples of post-modern meta-fiction. Crime fiction, however, has lagged somewhat behind, especially in America -- even if Paul Auster’s groundbreaking " New York Trilogy” novels from the mid-1980s are included in the mix as out-and-out genre, another fraught piano wire stretch.
Journeying to other lands reveals a more promising fictional landscape. Jose Carlos Somoza took home a deserved Gold Dagger several years ago for “The Athenian Murders,” a tale in parallel of a mysterious manuscript from Ancient Greece and the peril its translator falls into by virtue of his increasingly manic footnotes. Arturo Perez-Reverte packs literary references into nearly every page of his 1993 bestseller “The Club Dumas.” And Val McDermid’s “Killing the Shadows” investigates a spate of serial killings that are a mystery writer’s worst nightmare: being murdered in accordance with the murders depicted in one’s bestselling crime novels.
Two more examples of crime meta-fiction now emerge from the pen of a Canadian and an Argentinian.
At first glance, Andrew Pyper’s “The Killing Circle” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press: 324 pp., $24.95) bears a superficial resemblance to Jincy Willett’s most recent novel “The Writing Class” (St. Martin’s Press: 326 pp., $24.95): Both novels revolve around a writing class that may be connected to a series of murders and depict the fiction-reality continuum with plenty of satirical bite. Willett, however, apes Agatha Christie with a plot structure resembling “And Then There Were None"; Pyper is more interested in scaring the reader outright.
The first frightening element is the aforementioned writing group that meets in Toronto neighborhoods from affluent Rosedale to the funky student-centric Annex. Patrick Rush, erstwhile protagonist, single father and failed journalist, has joined more out of boredom and wanting to keep up with the literary Joneses than because he has any real writing ambition. Group leader Conrad White has one successful novel to his credit and a life shrouded in mystery. Angela is haunted by a seemingly mythical beast she dubs the Sandman until he leaps off her page and into real life, picking off members of the group in the gruesome fashion she’s depicted in prose. Add healthy dollops of plagiarism, rumination on the costly nature of success and action-packed (if somewhat telegraphed) final pages and Patrick learns a sobering lesson about art versus reality: “The Sandman had plans of its own. All it needed me for was to set it free.”
There’s no sense of clear-cut freedom in “The Book of Murder” (Viking: 218 pp., $23.95), the newest novel of criminal ideas from Buenos Aires-based mathematician Guillermo Martínez. While an earlier work of fiction, “The Oxford Murders” (2005), probed the relationship between mathematics and murder, now he tackles the philosophical underpinning between reality and fiction, exposing its chilling randomness and leaving the reader with a sense of disquiet in pondering his or her complicity in fictional crime.
An unnamed writer gets an unannounced visit from his former assistant, Luciana, whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years. The intervening years have not been kind to her figure, but as explanation she offers an amazing story: Her subsequent employer, a bestselling mystery writer named Kloster, envied by his peers (and the narrator) is responsible for the deaths of her closest family members and loved ones. Without the writer’s help, she says, her younger sister might be next on the writer’s hit list.
Kloster, naturally, has a different explanation: Someone is aping the crimes carried out in his current, and unpublished, work in progress. What follows is a triangle of battled wits and philosophical games that strips away the veneer keeping fiction away from truth. The narrator once took Kloster’s book to task in a review hardly anyone else read. Luciana’s theories seem both startlingly plausible and ridiculous. And Kloster admonishes the narrator and reader on the best way to read a mystery novel: “What is it that counts . . . ? Definitely not the facts, or the succession of dead bodies. It’s what you should read behindthem, the conjectures, the possible explanations.” Martinez’s novel is full of explanations and parried literary thrusts, culminating in a growing sense of understanding that order and chaos aren’t yin and yang but mirror images of each other.