Review by Walter Cummins
As a fan of mysteries, especially those with academic settings, I was drawn to the description of Rebecca Makkai’s latest title. It offered situations that particularly appealed to me—a former student returning to a campus where a classmate and one-time roommate had been murdered twenty years in the past. Although a convicted killer was in prison, doubts lingered. The past was hardly distant. It resonates throughout the events of the present. In effect, a core of people there during the evening of the murder are forced to relive events they experienced as teenagers.
The reopening of a case from years ago, and even the campus setting, is a familiar subject for genre fiction. But Makkai is a literary writer, as evidenced by her previous work, especially The Great Believers, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. That got me to contemplating what distinguishes a literary mystery from a genre approach to similar material. For starters, Makkai offers more inventive prose and more developed characters. But what seems the crucial difference is that whodunit drives the genre work, the telling focused on unearthing the real culprit. Solving the crime is secondary for Makkai, as much as it drives the accumulating revelations. Makkai’s deeper interest lies in exploring the themes that surround the killing of a beautiful young woman, probing the reasons such a murder took place. At the end of the novel, while the people involved know much more about the circumstances and some—especially Bodie, the narrator—about themselves, a culprit is suspected but nothing resolved. A genre work would have been conclusive.
Beyond people’s memories of two decades before, a newly discovered VHS video posted on YouTube documents the hours before Thalia Keith’s murder, recording her role in a student performance of Camelot. For Bodie, instances from the curtain call introduce uncertainties she feels compelled to grasp, suspecting the meaning of such details would lead to a greater understanding of the crime: “I dreamed for weeks afterward not about Thalia’s head turn, her mouthed question, but about Beth Docherty’s flask.” A Dateline TV episode ten years after the murder was devoted to Thalia’s death, but Bodie finds it riddled with errors.
Still, Bodie acknowledges the appeal of Thalia’s murder for voyeuristic viewers, as it would be for genre fiction: “For the journalists of the future, it would mean endless easy metaphors. Boarding school as kingdom in the woods, Thalia as enchantress, Thalia as princess, Thalia as martyr. What could be more romantic? What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl ...”
There’s also the possible lure of a beautiful young girl as a sexual object for older men. In fact, Bodie has one she suspects to be the perpetrator—addressing him throughout the writing as “you,’ but naming him in the opening pages as Mr. Bloch. Bloch, a music teacher, had directed the Camelot performance, and Thalia spent quite a bit of time with him. Back then Bodie hadn’t thought much about it, but now the facts of the relationship are crucial for her. Had it been sexual—teacher seducing student, killing her to keep a secret? The man convicted of the murder, Omar Evans, had been in his mid-twenties, a decade younger than Bloch, but still much older than a teenager. Was he involved with Thalia, perhaps against her will?
To complicate the sexual exploitation theme, a woman who was twenty-one at the time had a consensual romance with Bodie’s estranged husband, Jerome, then in his thirties. During the return to the Thalia case she creates an email site and public performance accusing him of taking advantage of her youth. Jerome, an artist, resigns from a teaching position and loses sales at galleries. Bodie is sympathetic toward him, but the accusation adds to her pondering over what age is appropriate for sex, asking when the power of an older man should be condemned.
Was the fact that Thalia was so beautiful that many men desired her the cause of her death? Did any seduce her, abuse her, murder her because of her desirability? That enigma deepens this novel far more than the search for the actual killer. Makkai’s real literary concern is the more complex why rather than the genre who.