My mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Mystery Man by Colin Bateman. It was a good discussion, as always, about a book that struck me as strange. The book didn’t quite come together for me, but it was very funny, at least in places, and kind of a puzzle to think about. What made it so odd was the fact that it’s written in first person from the point of view of a man who is mentally disturbed, to one degree or another. It’s a little hard to tell just what’s going on with him because, of course, he’s the narrator and we get no other perspective on the story. This made reading the book as uncomfortable as it was amusing.
The narrator is strange, paranoid, and often kind of nasty, although this is presented in a funny way. He lives in Belfast and owns a mystery book shop, and he’s the kind of guy who sells a customer a map when they ask for directions, even though he could easily point the way. He needs to make money after all. And there are scenes like this one:
So he gave me their number and said they were on the Newtownards Road and I thanked him for his time and still suitably enthused, or bored, I was about to phone them when the shop door opened and a man came in and asked if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said, yes, if you’re a moron.
It’s enough to make me wonder how in the world this guy (unnamed) ever keeps a bookstore open. His methods of drumming up business involve hosting events like Serial Killer Week, and inviting the famous author Brendan Coyle to teach creative writing classes. Coyle is a local author of literary fiction who “dabbles” in crime writing every now and then (and could be, as Emily points out, John Banville/Benjamin Black):
He is a vain, boorish snob, and sometimes I wonder why I ever bothered inviting him to teach a monthly creative writing class in No Alibis.
Then I remember that it’s because he does it for nothing and that I also sell a lot of books off the back of his visits. The only reason he does it for free is that I convinced him that he should be giving something back to ‘his’ people, and he was sucker enough to fall for it. I like to think that every minute he spends talking twaddle in No Alibis in one minute fewer spent trying to write crime, which is a blessing for us all.
The narrator turns into a detective when the real detective in the shop next door disappears. The missing detective’s customers wander over into the mystery bookshop hoping they can find some help there. The narrator is skeptical of their plaintive requests for help at first, but he soon gets caught up in the fun of solving cases, all of which he gives a name such as The Case of Mrs. Geary’s Leather Trousers or The Case of the Fruit on the Flyover. Eventually a really big case comes along, The Case of the Musical Jews (or, in earlier editions of the book, The Case of the Dancing Jews — Bateman changed details in later editions to make his story different from the real-life story of a woman named Helen Lewis).
The narrator needs to be pushed into taking on this big case, however. As a paranoiac, he is utterly afraid of just about everything, and he knows this case could be dangerous. It’s the woman who works across the street, Alison, the woman whom the narrator has had a crush on and has spied on for years, who is enthusiastic enough about taking on detective work to push the narrator into it. He keeps calling her his sidekick and getting upset when she takes too much initiative, but it seems pretty clear that she provides much of the brains and just about all of the energy and ambition of their operation. The two of them, along with the narrator’s assistant, Jeff, work together with varying degrees of competence and sanity until the case is solved.
Bateman’s sense of humor isn’t exactly mine, but still, there was an awful lot in this book that was funny, and the book seemed even funnier during the group discussion, as we retold the best stories and laughed over them. Hobgoblin loved this book and particularly the narrator, but for me, there was something about him that never quite came into focus. I wasn’t sure exactly how reliable he was, if at all, and if he’s completely unreliable, then where does that leave the reader? There weren’t many opportunities to see the narrator from other people’s perspectives in order to begin to figure him out, and there was a lot he never told us about himself. The book is very much a spoof of detective novels, which is part of the fun of it, but it was hard to tell whether it was merely a spoof, or whether there was something more serious going on at the same time.
I also had trouble believing the relationship between the narrator and Alison. He has had a crush on her forever, pretty much, and the story of how they meet is fun. But after that, there are a number of scenes where he treats her quite badly, and she is always ready to forgive and forget, unrealistically, worryingly so. But, again, I was unsure how seriously to take all this. Is the author mocking wildly unrealistic relationships in novels, or … not? I kept hoping for some answers to these questions and never really found them.
I wonder whether I would have had these problems had the author’s sense of humor been more like my own. We discussed in our group the possibility that Irish readers might find the book funnier and more coherent than American readers. Bateman seems to be writing for an Irish audience (which makes sense, of course) and does little to help readers from elsewhere along. Maybe it partly boils down to a matter of culture.