‘We live in gossipy times … There’s a type of critic who reads only to search for hidden autobiographies. For whom the story and the writer are one and the same. The imagination gets short shrift. But that’s the interesting part – the part you can’t explain or understand. Or teach or talk about. That’s where the abracadabra is’ (p. 149; my italics).
So says Addison, the detective fiction novelist, in Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘The Case of the Imaginary Detective’ (2008). It’s an idea I’ve touched on in recent blogs – this collision of fiction and autobiography that shouldn’t be seen as a collusion between the two. It is always nice to see your ideas in print.
‘The Case of the Imaginary Detective’ is not a very catchy title, and I wouldn’t have picked the book up if I hadn’t recognised the author. It was a surprise to read that in the US it was called the far wittier ‘Wit’s End.’ Why the change? It seems a little inexplicable.
This is also a lesser known of Fowler’s many novels. She is celebrated chiefly for ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ (2004) and ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ (2013). It’s not that the writing here isn’t as enjoyable – funny, quirky, quotable – but the novel hasn’t the hook, that easily encapsulated point of uniqueness that is marketing magic. The hook was Jane Austen, obviously, in the first, and I won’t say what it is in ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ because the twist is so amazing everyone deserves to arrive at it innocent and feel the full force of the moment of revelation.
I suppose there is more of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get in our title. ‘Wit’s End’ doesn’t tell you anything about the way Fowler plays around with the form of the detective novel here. There is a mystery at the heart of ‘The Case of the Imaginary Detective,’ the solution to which needs investigation.
The main character, Rima, has gone to stay with her godmother, the great detective novelist Addison. She comes up against intrigue with old cults and murder. Will Rima work it all out? There is a pleasantly meandering journey towards that end – with commentary on the genre, but without the compelling ‘what next’ of the genre.
The setting feels all very up to date in many ways, for example Colin Farrell is rumoured to be about to play the imaginary detective in a TV remake of Addison’s books. The political commentary – of which there is quite a lot – is already dated though. Addison would not be happy with the turn in American politics.
Recent action on the literary world is fun to read about, like Fan Fiction – which seems to be solely designed to be about sex between various fictional characters. There is also a new type of interactive book, half detective novel, half computer game, with the detective an AI-avatar interface. Is this the way we are going?
The future and the present are covered: Fowler touches on where we are now with personal blogs. Addison is exasperated: ‘…Diaries used to be private things – that was the whole point. They came with those little keys so that no one would read them. When and why had they turned into performance art?’ (p. 88; her italics).
All round this is a gossipy novel for the gossipy times Fowler says we live in. ‘Addison had always maintained that eavesdropping was a professional obligation’ (p. 255). I agree, and at times I felt like I was eavesdropping on the characters.
Like, this incident felt beautifully real (so we can only applaud Fowler’s imagination?). One of Addison’s novels included a recipe in which one and a half sticks of butter were used. A fan letter berates her for not being more accurate. ‘Unfortunately this lack of consideration tainted my enthusiasm for the book. I don’t plan to finish it until some explanation of the measurement is provided’ (p. 243-44).
As I said, the writing is lovely – quirky and quotable. Even if the pace is whimsical. Even if this was a pleasant companion but not a great one.
Maybe I have let the irascible Addison colour my review. I was chastened when she asked,
‘Why must everyone write? … Why can’t they just read? There are so many very good books, already written. Written and published’ (p. 87).
The image: My imagination is wanting here. With detectives on my mind, I couldn’t think beyond a Sherlock magnifying glass.