Mystery, tragedy and farce converge in this engaging novel of considerable psychological depth.
At the outset, the principal characters in the latest from the Irish-born, American-based Collins (Lost Souls, 2004, etc.) all seem to be academic stereotypes. Initially, the protagonist appears to be E. Robert Pendleton, an English professor at a small Midwestern college whose early promise as a novelist has dissipated and whose tenure has been threatened by psychological breakdowns as well as lack of publishing output. Pendleton’s career contrasts sharply with that of Allen Horowitz, a former college classmate whose reputation as a writer has soared while Pendleton’s has fizzled. When Pendleton’s college invites Horowitz as a distinguished guest speaker, paying him as much for an appearance as some junior academicians earn in a year, their relationship turns even more contentious as they vie for the attention of a voluptuous grad student notorious as a literary groupie. So far, so predictable. Yet the story takes a series of sharp turns when Pendleton attempts suicide; the grad student discovers a previously unknown novel of his (and a potential thesis topic) that suggests he might be a genius, a murderer or both; and Horowitz uses his literary renown on the novel’s promotional behalf. Within this small collegiate town, it ultimately appears that everyone’s past interconnects for decades, and as police reopen the unsolved case that inspired Pendleton’s novel (while Pendleton remains little more than a vegetable), almost everyone is at least potentially guilty of something. The story ultimately pivots on an investigator who attempts to untangle an increasingly complicated plot involving older men attracted to younger women and what might be a serial murder of teenaged girls (whose deaths or disappearances previously seemed unrelated). But the investigator, with the eerie parallels between his life and the crime, could well be the one who needs investigating.
The suspense makes this a page-turner until the climax, as Collins’s plot combines academic satire, philosophical speculation and tragedy.