Michael Collins’ Death of a Writer asks which is the bigger crime, plagiarism or murder? Society might say murder, but academia might say plagiarism. In this literary detective story, E. Robert Pendleton started off well and appears to be headed nowhere fast. After early literary success, he is rotting as a literary professor at a small, elite liberal arts college in the Midwest. After bringing his successful nemesis to campus, Pendleton attempts suicide but fails. Directionless graduate student Adi Wiltshire is bequeathed his estate and uncovers a little-known manuscript of Pendleton’s called Scream, which is an existential exploration of the world with a gruesome murder thrown in. As the republished Scream climbs the charts while Pendleton remains unaware in a coma, cold-case detective Jon Ryder notices parallels between the murder in the book and an unsolved murder in the town. Did Pendleton murder the young girl and use the material for his book? If he did, does it matter in terms of the reception of the book? Ryder seems to be everywhere at once, uncovering the town’s secrets while his primary reason for being there, the murder of Amber Jewel, appears to remain unsolved.
Death of a Writer was an odd book. At times I loved it, and at times it annoyed me, which I suspect was Collins’ goal. He structured the book in such a way that everything had a purpose and a meaning. For example, the Ryder, the detective, appears at times not to be a very good detective and overlooking in-your-face clues to pursue flimsy suspects. At first I wondered if this was poor writing, but I came to realize that it was a intentional part of the book. Collins meant for Ryder to be absurd.
Collins effortlessly savages the academic world AND the detective novel in one fell swoop, and it is marvelous. Everyone is a suspect for the flimsiest of reasons while the real villain remains unmasked. Oh, and let’s not leave out the German philosophy. I never read much Nietzsche, but after this novel, I consider myself well informed. It’s interesting because you are tempted to dismiss the novel as a satire of academia, but then it becomes a very hard-boiled and grim detective novel. Bad things happen and often without any real rhyme or reason other than that’s the way it was, which is true to the existential spirit of the book. It’s sad and funny and grim and awful and infuriating all at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book. It’s slim, yet about 15 different complex things are going on in it. If you look plays within plays and things like that, then you’ll love this book because it’s like a book within a book within a book: an novel about academia within a detective novel within a book making fun of both.