Mystery Books for Sale

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by Marisha Pessl
DoubledayCanada/Bond Street Books, August 2013
624 pages
$34.00 CAD
ISBN: 0385667655

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

A few years ago, investigative reporter Scott McGrath made a catastrophic professional error. Relying on the sort of sub-rosa tip that people in his line of work depend on, he levelled an accusation on national television against the mysterious, reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova that he could not substantiate. Before he could turn around, he was subject to a law suit, out of a job, and an object of general derision in the New York circles he used to frequent.

Now he has learned that Cordova's only daughter has been found, an apparent suicide, at the bottom of the air shaft of a seedy building in Chinatown. He is certain that there is more, much more, here than meets the eye and he is determined to get to the bottom of things, perhaps rehabilitating his reputation in the process. He is joined in his quest by two teenagers, a young man named Hopper and a girl, Nora Halliday. Despite McGrath's (admittedly weak) protests, they attach themselves to his enterprise and cannot be budged. Their motives are initially unclear and the likelihood of a older and more experienced journalist being unable to get rid of them is not high, but Nora in particular, a sort of cross between Holly Golightly and Nancy Drew, is quite decorative.

This then is the set up for a book of more than 600 pages. The investigation takes the team into some rather odd corners of the New York scene - a shop called Enchantments selling magic potions, some of which would be right at home in Hogwarts; a private and reputedly hard-core sex club in Montauk Point; the drawing rooms and bedrooms of the very well-off people connected one way or another with Cordova, and finally to the Cordova family manor in upstate New York, heavily guarded and laden with menace.

When I first got the review copy of NIGHT FILM, I was mightily impressed. It is a beautifully produced book - heavy paper, gorgeous endpapers (it's been a while since I've seen any endpapers at all), real heft in the hand. Here was a book, I thought, that needs to be handled - the e-reader experience won't be the same. Ironically (I thought) it draws heavily on the web to push the story forward. It contains numerous meticulously imagined invented web pages to carry the back story and lots of the clues. It even provides an app that when downloaded will allow the curious reader access to even more material. I didn't actually do that, so I can't report on the content.

And for about a hundred pages, I did enjoy the trip. But then the experience began to wear. A number of oddities started to distract. The protagonist and narrator, Scott McGrath, lacked substance. Supposedly in his early forties and a seasoned journalist, he has a naive conception of the role of the artist that harks back to well before he was born. Although he lost a law suit and is presumably on the hook for child support and alimony payments and hasn't worked in several years, he has money to burn, spreading large bills about with abandon and living in a very nice apartment in a very nice neighbourhood. We are curious about the source of his income. Most annoying, however, is his habit of randomly italicizing words for no particular reason. He sounds a bit giddy, like a limp-wristed waiter in a 1930s Hollywood movie. Then there's the dead daughter - impossibly talented, ravishingly beautiful, she casts an irresistible, even unearthly, spell over all she meets and even some she doesn't, like Scott. But most of all, there's the central (if off-stage) character, Cordova, the genius, himself. He has made films that have driven some to psychotic breakdowns right there in the theatre before the lights come up. But then we are given capsule descriptions of the films themselves. They seem both tame and, worse, banal and very, very, old-fashioned.

Another couple of hundred pages and I began to suspect that the book was a gigantic joke and I'll fallen for it. The best scenes can be read as send-ups of hip/perverse New York. And like Cordova's films, the evil promised turns out to be mere naughtiness. The witch in the magic shop is a wholesome lady; the swingers at the secret sex club are indistinguishable from any guests at a Manhattan cocktail party. Yes, some of them go upstairs, but we don't get to follow them.

But forward another hundred pages and I began to fear that this was no joke. At one point, it is revealed that the entire Cordova family has chosen "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" as its family poem, so to speak, They will devote every ounce of their being to not measuring out their lives in coffee spoons. Instead they will pursue Art and worship the Artist, who needs "just one fundamental thing in order to thrive....Darkness. I know it's hard to fathom today but a true artist needs darkness in order to create." The reader is apparently expected to take all of this with utter seriousness as it is spoken by Cordova's close associate, Inez Gallo and she is, at the end of the novel, telling Scott the truth about what has happened.

The film rights for NIGHT FILM have been optioned and I suspect it will make a pretty good film. After all, Pessl has drawn on many of the tropes of Hollywood movies of the 30s and 40s and they have considerable staying power. But as a reader, I can only regret the enormous waste of imaginative energy that has gone into a project so superficially attractive and so hollow at the core.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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