Reviewed by Alice Grundy
The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.
And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.
To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.
The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe. The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.
The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.
While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.
At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.
Ian Rankin is known for uncovering Edinburgh’s underbelly in his Inspector Rebus novels, but a different side again is exposed in Doors Open – the dark streak of rich, bored executives; art lovers; and software engineers in the Scottish capital.
Mike Mackenzie is a 37-year-old art collector who is offered a chance to do dirty. The adrenaline is just the hit he has been looking for. Along with Gissing – the art professor, and his banking friend Allan, Mike brings in Chib Calloway, renowned gangster, for some much-needed muscle and expertise.
But as more and more people come into the mix, demands rise, and the secret is stretched to breaking point. Will one’s paranoia be their undoing? Or the mean but civilised Norsk Hell’s Angel called ‘Hate’ who is chasing up Chib for money owed? Have the art-loving wannabe thieves gotten themselves in too deep?
This book is really great fun. If you love heist films like Oceans Eleven, or The Thomas Crown Affair (which are aptly referenced by characters in the book), or if you enjoy general crime fiction there is plenty to keep you entertained. Much of the enjoyment for me came from the Edinburgh setting – the favourite of the 12 cities I visited in UK/Europe in February. Much of the action takes place in areas I wandered.
One reason Rankin has been on my to-read list for a while, too, is due to his charming appearance on ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club in 2008. Next time around I must get the audio book so I can indulge in the Scottish accent!
Overall, an easy and entertaining read with a fair bit of suspense and excitement. Good for summer.