A prickly, computer-age take on the mystery genre, from Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club, 2004, etc.).
Twenty-nine-year-old Ohio schoolteacher Rima Lanisell comes to Santa Cruz, Calif., to stay with her godmother Addison Early. The famous author of a mystery series featuring detective Maxwell Lane, Addison is an eccentric who creates a dollhouse miniature of her crime scene before actually writing each novel. Rima is curious about Addison’s relationship and eventual falling out with Rima’s recently deceased father, a well-respected journalist whose name Addison used for the wife-murderer in one of her novels. Shortly after Rima’s arrival at Addison’s house, a wayward fan steals a miniature body from one of the dollhouses. While Rima becomes obsessed with hunting down the perpetrator, that theft seems as close to scary crime as the novel is going to get. Although Rima is mourning not only her father’s but also her adored, risk-taking only brother’s death, the tone remains light and mocking (and predictably, though jarringly, hostile to the Bush administration). Addison’s household includes a cast of gently comical updated gothic stereotypes, including a housekeeper with a shady past, her alienated son and a blogging dog-walker who informs Rima that Addison and Maxwell Lane are popular topics online. Logging on, Rima soon finds the distinction between fact and fiction blurring in regard to her father, Addison and even herself. Along the way she finds a stash of fan letters sent to Maxwell. She writes back to one in Maxwell's name. She also begins wondering how her father knew the letter writer, once a member of a local right-wing religious cult. Only astute readers will wade through the sometimes annoying barrage of disjointed, quirky twists to find the hints planted that there may once have been a real murder involving the cult, and that Rima’s father may have been involved.
Fowler’s clever insights eventually sink in as more profound than they initially seemed.