A suspicious double suicide sparks sexual turmoil and soul-searching among investigators in this knotty, stilted debut novel of ideas.
Famed anti-Communist intellectual Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon is a seminal critique of Stalinism. In Otterman’s (Inmate 1818 and Other Stories, 2014, etc.) novel, Koestler’s and his wife’s real-life 1983 suicide by barbiturates poses thorny questions for fictional London coroner Jack Candrel and his inquiry. One is whether Cynthia Koestler, 55 years old and in good health, volunteered to follow her elderly, terminally ill husband to the grave or was coerced. Another is the mystery of love, as embodied in the bond between Koestler, a compulsive philanderer, abusive cad and accused rapist, and the women who were unaccountably devoted to him. This second question is most resonant for Jack, who’s been taking testosterone injections to revive his flagging potency and marriage. He finds himself so randy that he starts an affair with Koestler’s illegitimate daughter Kristie, a beautiful ballerina. Meanwhile, Jack’s fetching assistant Rita, a sexually aggressive woman, starts her own affair with Frankel Dorfman, a Jewish-American literary scholar specializing in Koestler’s writings who’s consulting on the case. (Because what police inquiry is complete without a literary scholar?) This historical why-dunit touches cursorily on episodes from Koestler’s life, but his and Cynthia’s deaths take a back seat to other characters’ tangled relationships and associated conundrums: Are love and lust compatible? Are women entitled to the same sexual freedom as men? When does commitment become pathological? Jack, Kristie, Frankel and Rita ruminate on these issues in between graphic yet perfunctory sex scenes and pleasant but humdrum dates. Unfortunately, the resulting dialogue feels wooden and didactic (“throughout history, marriage has not been seen as a vehicle for expressing love and devotion, but rather a way of cementing alliances between families, enhancing family wealth or status, and ensuring that tradition continues on into succeeding generations)” or painfully Freudian (“Kristie may signify the new mother and you, her young boy,” intones Jack’s therapist). When the characters finally confront betrayals, the novel carries some real emotional weight. Too often, though, it bogs down in aimless philosophizing.
An earnest but stiff and uninvolving exploration of love and its discontents.