FICTION

Little Mysteries

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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 30, 2008

WIT'S END

By Karen Joy Fowler

Marian Wood/Putnam. 324 pp. $24.95

The Jane Austen Book Club could not have been better designed or timed. Karen Joy Fowler's fourth novel appeared in 2004 at the intersection of two massive forces in American publishing: women's book clubs and the Austen revival. With its sharp wit and clever allusions to Emma et al., the story rotated through a year's worth of meetings involving six members of a book club in California. If the plot was a little slow and tenuous, well, nobody minded because Fowler's portrayal of reading-group dynamics was pitch-perfect, and the sprinkling of Austenia made the whole thing sparkle.

Her new novel, Wit's End, promises the same kind of bookish delight, and, again, it aims at an enormous segment of the reading market: mystery lovers, who will seize upon this novel like Hercule Poirot upon a bloody candlestick. It's packed with parodic references to the genre's classic conceits and clich¿s, and there's a nod to Austen's own satire of mysteries, Northanger Abbey. But Fowler's real subject this time is the relationship between contemporary writers and their rabid fans.

Our heroine is a 29-year-old middle-school teacher in Ohio named Rima, who has a habit of losing things. Among the missing items, Fowler lists "countless watches, rings, sunglasses, socks, and pens. The keys to the house, the post office box, the car. The car. A book report on Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone plus the library's copy of the book plus her library card. Her mother's dangly turquoise earrings, the phone number of a guy she met playing pool and really, really did want to see again. One passport, one winter coat, four cell phones. One long-term boyfriend. One basically functional family."

That sly wit, slipping easily between silly and tragic, is Fowler's best quality. Rima's mother died almost 15 years ago, her brother was killed in a car accident, and recently her father passed away. Now alone, lonely and grief-stricken, Rima accepts an invitation to stay with her wealthy godmother in Santa Cruz, Calif. She doesn't know the woman well, but she knows of her. Everyone does. Addison Early is "The Grande Dame of Murder," one of the world's most successful mystery writers. In her 60s and suffering from a long bout of writer's block, she lives in a gorgeous Victorian beach house called "Wit's End" that was once owned by a survivor of the Donner Party. The rooms are filled with Addison's famous dollhouses, each a replica of a murder scene that she constructed to plan a different novel, e.g., " The Box-Top Murders, poison in the breakfast cereal; One of Us, rattler in the medicine chest; and The Widow Reed, weed whacker in the hedges."

Her famous detective character, Maxwell Lane, lives in the popular imagination with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. He's the subject of Addison's numerous novels, eight movies and three TV series. But Fowler is most interested in Maxwell's active, independent existence in the minds of fanatical readers, the kind of aggressive adoration that's grown exponentially since the advent of the Internet. Addison wages a never-ending battle against intrusions on her privacy, including a series of Wiki-wars conducted on the popular Web encyclopedia, with deletions and additions cycling on ad infinitum. Every possible aspect of Maxwell's life is analyzed on Web sites devoted to the novels, and he's the leading man (sometimes gay, sometimes straight) in an ever-growing collection of stories written by fans for other fans -- a relatively new, legally questionable online genre called fan fiction.

Everything about this mystery-soaked set-up promises high entertainment (and high sales), but the biggest riddle of all is why Wit's End is ultimately so unengaging. Some of the problem stems from the fact that the novel has such a muted plot. Soon after Rima arrives to stay with her godmother, a belligerent Maxwell fan barges into the kitchen and darts off with the tiny corpse from one of the dollhouses. Rima determines to solve this miniature crime, but no one else in the book is very interested and, frankly, no one outside of it is likely to be either. Even Rima acknowledges that there's little mystery here. "Solving the case would give her something to do," she thinks, but then wonders, "What case?"

Soon, she moves on to discovering the nature of her late father's relationship with Addison. This investigation leads her to a defunct cult in which something dastardly may or may not have taken place 50 years ago. Although there's plenty of sensational material here -- charismatic sex-fiend! suicide! murder! -- these events remain distant, not so much mysterious as merely vague, and despite the accumulation of little clues, we're never given much reason to care. Late in the book, Rima seems to acknowledge as much when she admits again, "There was no case."

Of course, The Jane Austen Book Club didn't have much plot momentum either, but it overcame that deficiency by sinking deep into the lives of its book club members. In Wit's End, however, except for Rima, the characters are coated with some kind of impenetrable membrane. Addison is obsessive about her privacy. She tells stories that, "no matter how intimate the content, kept Addison behind glass." Tilda "was Addison's housekeeper unless she was something more," a possibility never seriously explored in the novel. And that only leaves the dog-walker, Scorch, who is less interesting than Addison's miniature dachshunds.

This comedy of manners isn't without charm; Fowler's subtle humor glides across these pages and enlivens them no matter how dilatory the plot. And her exploration of the creepy relationship between popular authors and their fans in the Internet Age feels up-to-the-minute fresh. But nevertheless a crime has been committed: Long before the end, the novel's life is snuffed out. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to charlesr@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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