An unhappily successful writer of “airport fiction” sinks into the deeper—in fact, the endless—mystery of why South African businessman Christo Mercer was stabbed to death by a pair of apparently casual muggers. On the one hand, you have to wonder why Robert Poley would ever have gotten interested in someone as remote as Christo Mercer—a misterioso with degrees in law and business, a friend of warlords and terrorists, a guilt-ridden killer convinced that his dreams foretold coming disasters—however rich his sources of information (stories, interviews, cryptic E-mails from Christo’s hard drive, and a dream diary recounting 4,571 of the dreams that Christo so dreaded) or how tantalizing his informants (from “N.S.,” Christo’s E-mail correspondent, to Deep Throat II, the anonymous donor of waves of collateral material). But the more Poley talks about his own barren life—his messy divorce from the wife who’s left him for another woman, the teenaged sons who bounce from one petty scrape to the next—the more you can see why Poley needs Christo as an (inevitably futile) escape from himself. Throwing himself into the job of reconstructing Christo’s life and death, Poley sorts through a mad cornucopia of monstrous riddles’scattered, with Johnny Appleseed prodigality, throughout personal testimonials, surrealistic dream narratives, literary antecedents from The Arabian Nights to Tamburlaine (a particular obsession of Christo’s), footnotes, footnotes to the footnotes, etymologies, and stylistic notes on Christo’s poetry—till Nicol’s pairing of active and passive heroes comes less to resemble the tragic brooding of Absalom, Absalom! than the antic ramblings of Pale Fire. Quite a change from Nicol’s savagely understated fables of South African oppression (Horseman, 1995, etc.)—but, in its own pyrotechnical way, just as obscure in the end.