Ah, the life of the lowly author who realizes that his output is not one that reaches the subjective level of high art, but rather belongs quite snugly under that dreaded (and equally subjective) label of popular fiction. What a crushing blow to the psyche it must be to aspire to join the esteemed ranks of Bellow, Roth, and Findley, and instead find oneself lumped in with the likes of Grisham, Koontz, and Patterson.
Canadian author Andrew Pyper has been battling with this conundrum for quite some time now. A writer with a poet’s eye for atmosphere and an entertainer’s skill at building crackerjack entertainments, Pyper has found himself more often than not consigned to the shelves of popular fiction. But a) why should that be considered a bad thing, and b) who ever said an author couldn’t be both? It’s a hoary old chestnut (but true nonetheless) that Charles Dickens wrote his stories to entertain the masses, and his artistry was only truly understood and appreciated through the passage of time.
Take Pyper’s debut novel Lost Girls, a story initially marketed as a John Grishamesque legal thriller. Using the well-worn plot device of a lawyer, Pyper wove a story far more thrilling than anything Grisham ever produced, layering on the themes of death, loss, grief, and memory with an artist’s touch. Lost Girls was an ‘entertainment’ in the sense that it followed a linear plot, had exciting characters and plot twists, and was in every sense a ‘page-turner’. But it was ‘literary’ in its complexity of character, its crafting of mood, its evocation of dread. Lost Girls was to a John Grisham construction as a microbrewed lager is to a can of Busch Lite; the ingredients are more or less the same, but only one shows care, craft, and character. Only one, in other words, is really any good.
Pyper belongs to the rarified sphere of thriller authors who bring far more to the table than a performer’s understanding of how to draw an audience in. Like Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos, Pyper writes novels that exhilarate first and foremost, yet explore themes that would cripple lesser writers. No one of any sense would write that Mosley’s Easy Rawling novels were simply mysteries that, once solved, were to be tossed aside. They aren’t confections filled with empty calories. They stick with you; big juicy three-course meals.
But maybe I’m reading too much into it. Or maybe I’m overcome with gratitude that finally, someone has written a novel with a book reviewer as the main protagonist. Either way, The Killing Circle, Pyper’s fourth novel, is his best to date.
The hero is Patrick Rush, a former National Star book reviewer who has slowly descended the hierarchy of the newspaper to become what is surely the nadir of journalistic identity, the television reviewer. Stuck watching taped programs with titles such as Falling from Buildings! and Animals that Kill!, Patrick longs for what every book reviewer secretly wants; “I longed to be an embossed name on a spine, to belong to the knighthood of those selected to stand alongside their alphabetical neighbours on bookshop and library shelves. The great and nearly so, the famous and wrongly overlooked. The living and the dead.” Patrick suffers from a malady common to the frustrated author; “I could no longer open the Book Review of the Sunday Times without causing physical pain to myself. The publishers. The authors’ names. The titles. All belonging to books that weren’t mine.” No self-respecting book reviewer (or wanna-be author) will be able to resist Pyper’s accurate and caustically funny depictions of the deep-seated cravings for fame common to every person who has attempted to pen a story of their own.
The problem for Patrick is not the drive to write, but rather the fact that he has nothing to say − although if you consider that he is now writing his story (or is he?), you must then assume that something interesting must have happened. Patrick joins a writing circle to help jumpstart his writing, but instead of finding an avenue into his own stories, he finds himself entranced by the disturbed writings of Angela, a member who tells stories of a childhood tragedy and a “terrible man who does terrible things.” While Patrick worries that assuming that Angela’s tales were based on fact would reveal himself as “that most lowly drooler of the true-crime racks, the literal-minded rube who demands the promise of Based on a True Story! from his paperbacks and popcorn flicks,” there are eerie parallels in the story to certain news items making headlines.
It spoils nothing to reveal that the terrible man does show up and begin committing terrible things, as Pyper expertly turns the screws on the suspense, and takes a few unexpected turns along the way. The Killing Circle offers some sick and twisted fun, especially when Patrick realizes that he is living “[not] the life of one who writes or even writes about books, but a malingering lowbrow who wrongly thinks he deserves better. No wonder, when his life decides to assume the shape of literature, it isn’t a novel of ideas, but a chronicle of murder and suspicion… A bloody page-turner.”
An author becoming a part of his own personal horror story is not exactly a new literary theme − Stephen King (talk about a thriller writer with talent!) has created an entire cottage industry around the conceit − but Pyper layers his serial killer tale with a meta-layer on the importance of stories themselves to the individual. Are the stories we live important to others? When is a story truly our own? Are we even the main characters in our own lives? As Patrick muses, “Nobody lives their life as though they’ve only been cast in a grisly cameo.” Pyper takes full delight in keeping the reader guessing as to the true identity of the killer, so much so that Patrick himself cannot guarantee that he’s not making the whole thing up. He might not even be telling the story, if it’s his to tell at all.
Pyper does a splendid job of lampooning the literary types who dismiss popular fictions while at the same time straddling both worlds. The Killing Circle is a terrific thriller for those who want it simple, and an intricate exploration into personal myths and stories for those who demand a little more meat on their bones. Scary, original, and unsettling, The Killing Circle is a treat.