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‘The 22 Murders of Madison May’ is a thrilling ride in every dimension

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Max Barry’s debut novel, the corporate satire “Syrup,” was published in 1999, heralding a very successful career built on an uncommonly heterogenous canon.

True to form, after the far-out space-opera of 2020’s “Providence,” Barry pivots again — ensuring his own artistic fulfillment and his readers’ surprise — and returns to a highly naturalistic and Earthbound milieu, but one with its own share of strangeness.

“The 22 Murders of Madison May” begins with the intimate perspective of Madison “Maddie” May, a junior real estate agent about to show a dump of a house to a lone male client. Her somewhat sad and depressive life is rendered with fine touches, the decrepitude of the home standing in for her current condition. We get the sense that her life has gone down a wrong track.

With the arrival of the client — the creepily open and earnest young Clayton Hors — the tone and mood shifts dramatically into one of pure menace. By the end of the chapter, we have entered what appears to be standard serial killer territory — albeit with some puzzling talk about alternate lives.

We next jump into the daily grind of Felicity Staples, a young political reporter for New York City’s Daily News. (Her vividly drawn co-workers, boss Brandon and crime beat maven Levi, stake out their roles nicely, too.) Her situation contrasts starkly with Maddie’s; Felicity has a live-in boyfriend and some job satisfaction, although with typical minor disgruntlements. But the fates and lives of the two women, strangers at first, are about to become entangled.

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Felicity cops the assignment of reporting on Maddie’s murder at the hands of Clayton Hors. As her investigation continues, she finds herself being sucked down a very bizarre rabbit hole. To summarize without spoiling, Clayton turns out to be a traveler across the various strands of the multiverse, showing up in alternate timelines just for the purpose of murdering Madison May. (His twisted vengeance stems from Maddie spurning his initial advances.) Felicity’s involvement in the case becomes personal when she meets another fellow named Hugo, who belongs to a group of continuum-jumpers seeking the gradual perfection of reality by the choices they make. They want to stop Hors before he kills again.

Soon Felicity is accidentally enrolled in their ranks — and she discovers that her inadvertent journey across timelines is a one-way voyage down vectors of accumulating change. At the end lurks a decisive four-way confrontation between Hugo, Clayton, Maddie and Felicity, with no one’s survival guaranteed.

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Barry strives to paint equally compelling portraits of the two women and comes pretty darn close. Each character assumes a fully rounded and weighty resonance. But Maddie’s condition as an unaware perennial victim militates against her foregrounding. It’s really Felicity who functions as our protagonist, as we witness her dogged, creative pursuit of justice, despite all the deracination she experiences. The various iterations of her boyfriend, Gavin, are especially amusing: sometimes bearded, sometimes not; sometimes a gourmet chef, other times a Grubhub addict; now faithful, now a cheater. The ever-evolving character drives home the “Sliding Doors” mutability of anyone’s personality, bent by circumstance.

Barry goes light on the mechanics of his multiversal paradigm, coating the dynamic, suspenseful action with a light frosting of metaphysics. For comparison, a recent allied work would be “The Gone World,” by Tom Sweterlitsch, whose heroine experiences similar timeline-jumping adventures that balloon into complicated Philip K. Dick-style surreality. As for Hugo and his compatriots, they never emerge as a real force, but do acquire some of the tinge of the vulture-like time-travel tourists from C.L. Moore’s classic tale, “Vintage Season.”

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Evaluating the recent HBO series “Mare of Easttown,” the critic and scholar Istvan Csicsery-Ronay characterized the show’s protagonist as part of “an avalanche of psycho-spiritually beleaguered female detectives . . . fighting against toxic male violence and cynicism while wanting to do good policing — because of their fathers, or their inner politics, or deep female sense of righteousness. They . . . believe in Herr Kant and the categorical imperative. And they are all severely damaged by it.”

Felicity Staples surely belongs in this company, but with enough panache, gumption and resilience for a dozen of her own avatars.

Paul Di Filippo is the author of the Steampunk Trilogy and “The Deadly Kiss-Off.” His next book, “The Summer Thieves,” comes out July 20.

The 22 Murders of Madison May

By Max Barry

G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 336 pp. $27

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