The Serialist by David Gordon

The Serialist
David Gordon
Simon and Schuster, 2010
U.S. trade paper, first edition
ISBN 978-1-4391-5848-7
352 pages; $15.00

The Serialist has been nominated for an Edgar Award as the best first novel of the year, and it’s easy to see why. This original and entertaining mystery is as good as they get. Not only is it a great book as a traditional mystery, it’s also delightful as a book about the nature of books and writing, with passages of carefully crafted literary prose.

The premise of the book is that the first-person narrator, Harry Bloch, is a writer who has been selected by a Death Row inmate, Darian Clay, to write his story. Clay promises to tell Bloch everything, right down to where he hid, buried or disposed of – he’s not saying exactly what he did with them yet – the heads of the women he murdered.

For Bloch, this is an amazing break. Bloch’s writing has so far been limited to a bunch of different genre knock-offs written under pseudonyms. As Madam Sibylline Lorindo-Gold, he’s written a handful of mildly popular vampire novels; his mother has posed for the author picture for these books, beginning with Crimson Vein of Darkness. I’m quite certain that any resemblance to the more risible bits of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books is surely coincidence. He’s written a column for Raunchy, a porn magazine, as Tom Stanks, the Slut Whisperer. And he writes noir mysteries as J. Duke Johnson, all starring a ghetto sheriff named Mordechai Jones, a black Jew of mixed Ethiopian and Native American descent. Finally, there are the science fiction books set on the planet Zorg, “where overbreasted miniwaisted women and bearded, brawny, weirdly busty men rode dragons, flew rockets and drank mead from horns.” His nom-de-plume for these books is T.R.L. Pangstrom, and any notion that these are a take-off of John Norman’s Gor books surely must be wrong. Excerpts from Bloch’s writing as each of these authors appear here and there throughout the book, keeping any genre reader giggling, sometimes inappropriately but helplessly.

None of these ventures has made Bloch wealthy, but the Clay book really might. His teenage manager – and how he wound up with a teenage manager is a story in and of itself, also hilarious – insists that he write the book, even though his stomach is turned by the conditions that Clay sets, Clay’s lawyer forbids it, and most of the families of Clay’s victims beg him not to.

Despite the objections to his undertaking this project, Bloch decides to do it when the twin sister of one of Clay’s victims asks him to. Well, there’s that and the fact that his former lover’s husband mocks him for his pseudonymous writing at a party sponsored by a literary magazine (another set piece, where the pretentiousness of fans of literary fiction is skewered as well as it’s ever been done).

Bloch starts the work he needs to do in order to get Clay’s story out of him, meeting the conditions Clay has set: meet the women who have been writing to Clay in prison, promising him their love and devotion and, of course and above all, sex. Wild, crazy, perverted sex. Clay demands that Bloch write up a porn scene involving each of the women after he meets them, in exchange for which he will provide Bloch with information for his book. As distasteful as Bloch finds this work, he complies. Things seem to be going swimmingly until one of Bloch’s interviewees is found slaughtered in Clay’s style – and suddenly this book becomes less a send-up of writing and reading (as well as a love story to both) and becomes a genuine mystery, though without ever losing its humor and charm.

And Gordon clearly knows how to write a mystery. This might be his first book, but he’s got the touch. Even when you think the last twist has occurred, another one comes along, and then another. I can’t say that Gordon entirely plays fair with his readers in that he doesn’t lay out sufficient clues in the story itself to lead the reader to the answers – but any devoted mystery reader will probably have guessed what’s going on a bit earlier than Gordon’s protagonist does, which I read as yet another comment on the nature of reading and writing.

More than knowing how to write a mystery, though, Gordon just plain knows how to write. Consider this passage about reading:

Why do we read? In the beginning, as children, why do we love the books we love? For most, I think, it’s travel, a flight into adventure, into a dream that feels like our own. But for a few it is also escape, flight from boredom, unhappiness, loneliness, from where or who we can no longer bear to be. When I read, the words on the page replace the voice in my head and I cease, for a little while, to be me, or at least to be so painfully aware of being me. These are the real readers, the maniacs, the ones who dose themselves with fiction the way junkies get high, the way lovers adore the beloved: Beyond reason.

He’s got me nailed. In fact, I could quote you passage after well-written passage, just to share some great writing. Here’s just another little taste of a long passage that is a tour de force:

Heart of a failed poet, mind of an amateur detective, ass of a middle-aged hack writer – did I really suspect her of the murders? Ass of a detective, spleen of a poet, pituitary gland of a burned-out pulp novelist – what I felt was the sudden abyss that opened between us, the irreducible distance between one body and another, one mind and another.

Oh, it’s hard to stop quoting that paragraph, because it goes on beautifully from there. What a novel! You can be sure that David Gordon is now on my list of authors whose works I will buy on sight.

Click on the link to The Serialist in this review, and you’ll be taken to an Amazon page where you can buy this trade paperback for a mere $6.00, less than the cost of a mass market paperback these days. It is definitely worth the investment.