Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Serialist

The Serialist is one of the most unusual and entertaining books that I've read in a long time. The protagonist and narrator is Harry Bloch, an aspiring writer who barely eeks out a living by grinding out pulp novels in a variety of genres under various pseudonyms. One of his most successful is a vampire series that he writes under his mother's maiden name, Sybilline Lorindo-Gold. Harry gets his mom to pose for the author photo and then, when his mother dies, he has no choice but to don a wig, put on his mother's clothes and begin posing for the photos himself.

Harry supplements his income by writing term papers for wealthy students he is supposed to be tutoring. This aspect of his career is managed by a precocious and very appealing teenage girl named Claire who was the first student to be tutored by Harry and who conceived the idea of expanding the enterprise. Before long, Claire is managing most other aspects of Harry's life and doing a much better job of it than Harry had done himself.

Then, apparently out of the blue, Harry get a chance to take a gigantic step up in the writing biz when serial killer Darian Clay, who is a little more than eighty days away from being executed, asks Harry to ghost his memoir. Given Clay's fame, and the particularly sensational nature of his crimes, the book would doubtless be a huge best seller with all sorts of ancillary benefits. Harry has some reservations about accepting the offer, but Claire beats some sense into him and Harry begins visiting the prison to meet the brutal killer and get his story.

As the price for his cooperation, though, Clay demands that Harry visit some of the women who have been writing him in prison. Harry must then craft stories for Clay's amusement, describing the sort of lurid sex that Clay would have with the women if only he were free. Slimy as the task is, Harry agrees, but then the women he visits begin turning up dead, murdered in the same gruesome manner that was Clay's signature.

Harry now finds himself caught up in an enormously creepy and dangerous mystery. His own pulp novel detective hero would naturally break the case without breaking a sweat. But this is real life and Harry hasn't a clue as to how to proceed. The only thing he knows is that needs to come up with an idea ASAP or he may well become the next victim of a very disturbed killer.

It's impossible, really, to convey in a review the full measure of this very clever and appealing novel which is, as the cover suggests, a love letter to books and especially to genre fiction. The author, David Gordon, sprinkles through the book sample chapters of Harry's genre novels which are absolutely hilarious. Through Harry, he also has some very wise things to say about the reasons why so many readers love these books.

At one point, Harry notes that, "In its tropes and types, genre fiction is close to myth, or to what the myths and classics once were. Just as a century or two ago, one could refer to Ulysses or Jason and hid a deep vein of common understanding in your reader, now we touch that place when we think of a lone figure riding in the desert, or a stranger in a long coat and hat coming down a corridor with a gun, or a bat wheeling above the city at night. Reduced to their essence, boiled down, the turns and returns of genre unfold like dreams, like the dreams that we all share and trade with one another and that, clumsy and unrealistic as they are, point us toward the truth."

This book was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and is sure to delight anyone who can easily lose an afternoon or stay up half the night devouring a genre novel.(

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