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At the heart of every good book, and that includes murder mysteries, is the author's love for his or her characters, the places they live, and the acts they commit. The foundation of such love is, ultimately, a love for words. Matthew Sullivan's first novel is filled with that kind of love. Sullivan's novel, MIDNIGHT AT THE BRIGHT IDEAS BOOKSTORE, circles around the old kind of bookstore that seems to have fled the planet. These old bookstores of multiple floors, haunted with avid readers, organized in beautiful array according to such monikers as Natural History or Self-Help, must exist in some bookstore heaven. When I die, I hope to be elevated at least to the Remainders Tables just outside the front door.
The Bright Ideas Bookstore, once a lightbulb factory, is home to an extended family of misfits: Homeless men, called the Book Frogs, who find a safe place to sit and read, and a cast of salespeople and dockworkers who love books and who care for each other. When one of their number commits suicide, bookstore clerk Lydia Smith finds a photograph of herself as a ten-year-old girl in the dead man's pocket. As she tries to find why the dead man might have carried her photograph, Lydia is forced to return to a terrible scene from her youth: she is the only survivor of a mass murder carried out with a hammer. The murderer, still at large years later, is called, simply, The Hammerman. Even as Lydia, a grown woman, enters her thirties, she is kept awake by dreams of The Hammerman.
Dramatis personae: Lydia Gardiner [Smith], sales clerk at the bookstore whose mother died in childbirth, and whose father moved his little girl into a remote home in the woods following the Hammerman's attack; David, Lydia's significant other whose hand has been mangled in an accident; Tomas, her bereaved father, once a librarian, now a prison guard; Joseph Edward Molina (Joey), homeless man, ex-prisoner, who doesn't last long; Plath, wisewoman, co-worker at the bookstore who cares for Lydia; Lyle, 60+-year-old gay man who took Joey under his wing when Joey first left the prison system; Carol O'Toole, red-haired trouble-maker in the fourth grade when Lydia was ten; Carol's father, a plumber; her mother, beautiful, restless, dissatisfied; Raj Patel, Lydia's childhood companion; Maya, Raj's mother, and Rohan, his father, who jointly operate a donut shop; Det. Harry Moberg, Ret'd, who tried and failed to solve the mystery of The Hammerman's crime; The Hammerman, mass killer, still at large, whose recalled image in Lydia's nightmares is of a hairy man's arm holding a bloody hammer.
Our novel circles around the Bright Ideas Bookstore and environs, an inner-city location in Denver that is long due for a facelift. Our characters are none of them wealthy: bookstore workers, plumbers, librarians, donut-store workers: all work for their livelihood and live lives that are shaved close to the bone. Always close by are the homeless, who are not even granted the safety of a roof at night. Somewhere out there on those same streets where our characters wait for the bus after work are men whose natures propel them to commit acts of violence.
The novel proceeds through flashbacks of Lydia in the tenth grade, and, in the present, Lydia's dogged determination to find out how one of the bookstore's frequent visitors came to die. She visits the dead man's apartment and finds that he has left a stack of books for her, and, cut into the pages of the books, lies a code which she feels compelled to break. A photograph of herself, Raj, and Carol, all aged ten, in the dead man's pocket, revives Lydia's memories of a night when she had a sleepover with friends. That night, a killer, whose identity remains secret, killed her friends, leaving her alive. Bothered by her nightmares, and bothered as well, by telephone calls from her estranged father, Lydia travels to the home of the retired detective who handled her friends' murder years ago. Visiting him and her father, and re-visiting her dreams, Lydia finds that the two cases, the case of the bookstore suicide, and the case of the murdered family, are somehow intertwined.
But my relation of the plot and naming of the characters does not cover all that I wish to say.
One of the epigraphs of Sullivan's novel honors Steven Millhauser, author of a volume of short stories, In the Penny Arcade. Millhauser's stories long for, and know, an ideal beauty that has somehow been lost; his characters wander in worlds slowly revealed to be sordid and commonplace. Sullivan's novel plays with the notion of what sordid means: homelessness? Imprisonment? Low-paying jobs? Public transportation? He finds in common life-experiences in the heart of Big City, USA, not the sordid, but the little acts of love and kindnesses that rescue all of us from falling too far.
§ Dr. C. Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and is a fan, as well, of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, June 2017
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