‘The Start of Everything,’ by Emily Winslow

January 4, 2013

Fr. Ronald Knox, a founding member of Britain’s famed Detection Club, concluded his 1929 “Decalogue” for detective fiction with this rule: “Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.”

Despite being set in Cambridge and then in an English manor house, Emily Winslow’s second novel, “The Start of Everything,” is far removed from the Golden Age of British mysteries, but with the persistent doubling that dominates this intricately plotted tale, I could hardly help thinking about Knox’s rules. People are frequently mistaken for others. Pairs of objects play central roles (watches and sweaters, specifically). While no actual twins appear, the novel features two sets of brothers, and in one case the likeness between them provides both a poignant, unsettling scene of impersonation and a legacy of tension and trouble.

In addition to doubles, an elaborate layering emerges. Each of three detectives struggles with physical and emotional issues (a personality disorder, a bum hand after a stabbing, a new pregnancy). And themes of parenthood (particularly motherhood) crop up everywhere: another pregnancy, various parenting woes — from messy toddlerhood to surly adolescence, from physical sickness to mental instability and more — and right along to the bitterness of an aging woman disappointed by her adult sons.

So is the author breaking old rules in fresh ways? Does all this doubling and layering accomplish something cleverly complex? Or is the end result just overcomplicated and confused?

The mystery here centers on a young woman whose corpse is discovered in a fen sluice gate, decomposed beyond recognition but with evidence of having been killed by several blows to the head. Police detectives Chloe Frohmann and Morris Keene — two of the novel’s five narrators — are tasked with discovering her identity and finding her killer, but they have very little to go on: just a red sweater with a custom label, which quickly leads them to a dead end.

In an overlapping storyline, another narrator — Mathilde Oliver, a clerk in a dead letter office — struggles to deliver a series of ardent love notes addressed simply to “Katja, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.” Following clues from the letters, Mathilde steadfastly tracks Katja, but when a new note refers to a red sweater, she begins to suspect that the elusive addressee is the unidentified corpse in the news, and her amateur sleuthing intensifies.

Through these and other narratives, the reader begins to glimpse (as the novel’s title promises) how this whole story started, looking back not just to the snowy day that marked the last moments for the girl in the fen sluice but also further into the past. One narrator, an astrophysicist, comments on how these mysteries relate to the farthest galaxies he studies: “Because of the time it takes for light to travel, we could look right at their corpses and see their births.”

While the interwoven narratives deliver surprises and revelations, their intricate connections frequently seem a little too insistent, the number of coincidences along the way orchestrated too conveniently to be credible. Even individual sections and scenes falter, with the author’s stylistic choices — terse bits of information, telegraphic jumps and sometimes skewed, disoriented perspectives — occasionally tending toward confusion. Det. Morris reflects, “Somehow I’m failing to follow transitions.” Readers are likely to feel the same way.

But coincidences and intermittent confusions aside, “The Start of Everything” does offer something unconventional, even innovative. While Cambridge and that manor house may hark back to traditional British mysteries — a murder or two, clues and red herrings, the killer smoothly unmasked — it’s important to note that the manor house here has been “chopped into flats,” traditions have been broken, modern life is intruding. If Winslow overworks some of the connections here, she’s brilliant at portraying the ragged fragments of these lives. What emerges isn’t a single killer with motive and means, but a tangle of stories crossing and colliding, stray intersections of incidents and accidents, misunderstandings and misreadings, all thanks to the myopia of individual perspectives and the self-centeredness of individual desires.

Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.

THE START OF EVERYTHING

By Emily Winslow

Delacorte. 254 pp. $26

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