A fledgling writer tackles a true-crime story and, in the process, discovers some uncomfortable truths about himself.
As a graduate student in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, Wood learned of a murder and arson at the Tampa-area motel where he’d recently stayed. There was no body, weapon, or motive, but the woman, Sabine, who co-owned the motel with her estranged husband, had gone missing. Her car was found with somebody else driving it, a man with a shady past. Less than two weeks later, the motel was torched. There were three suspects: Sabine’s estranged husband, her ex-con boyfriend who had done odd jobs at the motel, and the stranger driving her car. Wood felt like he didn’t belong in Iowa and was suffering something of the imposter syndrome as a would-be writer with nothing to write. After his mother sent him a news clipping about the crime, he writes, “I found in this fiery motel everything necessary to write.” The most conventional part of the story follows a familiar true-crime format, culminating in a confession that solves the mystery. But along the way, the book becomes more about Wood and how he stumbled into a relationship with a woman he didn’t know as well as he should have. He finds eerie parallels between this relationship and the one that he imagines developed between the woman who is now missing and likely murdered and her boyfriend, a prime suspect who was returned to prison on a parole violation. As the author began to sense “the creeping entanglement” of the stories, “a sharp nausea crept over me.” The narrative then shifts into Wood’s projected account of exactly what happened, how the romance developed between the ex-con and the woman, and how she died. It’s as much about what he sees in himself as it is about what might have happened to somebody else.
Reads like a mashup of at least three different books in one, written with psychological insight and literary flair but lacking cohesion and focus.