An interesting look at memory
When literary agent Peter Katz receives a partial book submission entitled The Book of Mirrors, he is intrigued by its promise and original voice. The author, Richard Flynn, has written a memoir about his time as an English student at Princeton in the late 1980s, documenting his relationship with the protégée of the famous Professor Joseph Wieder. One night just before Christmas 1987, Wieder was brutally murdered in his home. The case was never solved. Now, twenty-five years later, Katz suspects that Richard Flynn is either using his book to confess to the murder, or to finally reveal who committed the violent crime.
But the manuscript ends abruptly — and its author is dying in the hospital with the missing pages nowhere to be found. Hell-bent on getting to the bottom of the story, Katz hires investigative journalist John Keller to research the murder and reconstruct the events for a true crime version of the memoir. Keller tracks down several of the mysterious key players, including retired police detective Roy Freeman, one of the original investigators assigned to the murder case, but he has just been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Inspired by John Keller’s investigation, he decides to try and solve the case once and for all, before he starts losing control of his mind. A trip to the Potosi Correctional Centre in Missouri, several interviews, and some ingenious police work finally lead him to a truth that has been buried for over two decades…or has it?
This novel has received a huge amount of pre-publication attention. Everyone, it seems — from reviewers to international buyers (the ARC proudly announces that the novel has been sold in 38 countries) — has been gushing over the story. It is clear why it’s getting so much attention: it starts off very well-written, and the first part in particular is quite gripping. It is, however, also rather flawed. I read this quickly (over two days), but ultimately it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.
The premise of the novel is interesting: a book sample is submitted to an agent, who gets hooked by what he finds. (Indeed, it was enough to make me hooked, too, and my first reading sessions lasted well into the night, as I read the “Sample Chapters”.) It is an account of events leading up to, but not including, the death of a famous psychology professor at Princeton University back in the 1980s. The agent, Peter Katz, reaches out to the author, but discovers that he has suddenly passed away. Peter decides to investigate not only the manuscript, but also the book’s implications. This first part of the novel is, after a quick introduction, comprised of the sample chapters submitted to the agent. The second part is from the perspective of Peter’s journalist friend, who is hired to investigate. The third and final part of the novel is told from the perspective of a retired policeman who was somewhat involved with the case back in the ’80s. (That’s all I’ll say about the plot.)
Chirovici writes very well, and the novel moves with a near-relentless momentum. This is good, because who ever liked a thriller that plodded along? However, it also helps cover up some of the novel’s flaws, as we blow past things that, with hindsight, either didn’t quite work or were a bit thin.
I have no doubt this novel will be a success. It is a quick, interesting and easy read. However, I think the final result didn’t fully meet its potential, and I came away disappointed. I see what the author was trying to do, and he wrote a good novel. But, ultimately, there was little in the way of resolution (which, I know, was sort of the point). The middle section felt a little muddled, and my attention and interest waned while reading it. There was also a sense distance from all of the characters, almost as if the author didn’t want us to get too close to them (I may be over-reading, here). I never felt particularly invested in any of their fates, and as the novel progressed, I found myself less bothered by the prospect of discovering who had committed the murder.
Yes, all of their memories contradict each other’s in small ways, and it was interesting to see how they differed. But, ultimately I was left with a feeling of, “So?” It’s entirely possible that the novel is a victim of its hype — expectations have been raised so high, it was perhaps inevitable that I’d be a bit disappointed. Maybe it should have been longer, and written at a gentler pace? (It’s rare for me to wish the latter.)
So, to sum up: yes, it’s good. But there are other novels that have handled this kind of subject matter or structure better, and in a more engaging manner. I wanted to like this so much more than I did. If you’re looking for a quick, entertaining read, though, then The Book of Mirrors should suit your needs.