A conventional mystery novel presents a puzzle that the reader and protagonist must solve by asking the right questions and collecting the right answers. And then there are murder mysteries like Mr. Peanut, in which the novel itself is a puzzle and there are no pat answers. The debut novelist, Adam Ross of Nashville, who signs and reads here this Thursday, July 1, at 5:30 p.m., seems less interested in whodunnit and more intent on leaving his mark on the reader.
Being lovers of the unconventional, we marveled at this novel, which loses no darkness or mystery for all its craftiness and intellect. This isn't smarty-pants trickery but genuine psychological suspense, created with humor, kinkiness and inspiration.
It sounds like a crack plot: the police are called to the home of Alice Pepin, sufferer of severe food allergies, who has died of anaphylactic shock from a mouthful of lethal peanuts. Her husband David, a video game designer and a bit of a desperate creep, is brought in for questioning. Theirs was a difficult marriage. The novel he's writing opens: "When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamt convenient acts of God." Yet David swears it was suicide. Two detectives alternately question him, learning more about the ill-fated marriage. But the detectives have their own dark secrets and their own warped marriages, one of which is soaked in a murderous mystery all its own.
Perception plays a big role here, and the prevailing symbol seems to be the work of M.C. Escher, the artist whose famous drawings of distorted reality represent visual tricks and infinite deceptions that are the core mystery of this thriller. "Just as Escher's etchings contain forms interlocked with others, so too is every marriage's success interlocked with its potential destruction," said Ross in an interview from his publisher. "Time and circumstance and every other unforeseeable thing can send the happiest couples spiraling into misery and, especially in the novel, potential violence."
While it may not be the wisest gift for newlyweds, this is an entertaining and often troubling contemplation on marriage. But Ross lends a perverse playfulness to these ruined lives. Likewise his fearless honesty and dark imagination is bound to make your skin crawl. Imagine the moral depravity of Jim Thompson crossed with the sociological scrutiny of Raymond Carver.
We recently relaunched the Backporch Book Club with a lively discussion of Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil, a novel that seemed to equally confound and entice readers. We detected a similar quality in Mr. Peanut and wager it will bring about some great discussion, so we selected it for our next book club selection, which we'll discuss Tuesday, August 3.
But first, we encourage you to come out and meet Mr. Ross, a prodigious new talent, and hear him read from and discuss his debut novel. We'll sweeten the deal with some live music, featuring members of the Cleveland, Mississippi jazz-rock ensemble Amalgamation. The fun starts at 5:30 p.m. If you won't be in town and would like a signed copy, pre-order online.