Since Jane Smiley is renowned as a literary and Pullitzer prizewinning chronicler of family relations, most of us expected this book, her only thriller, to be a superior literary and psychological example of the genre, but for all but two of our group it was a disappointment.
Set at the beginning of the eighties, it opens as early-thirties librarian Alice Ellis is interviewed by a detective about the horrific scene she has just discovered when visiting the flat of her friend Susan, absent in the Adirondacks, to water the plants: the bodies of Susan's partner Denny and Craig, Denny's adopted brother who lives with them, slumped in easy chairs and shot through the head. Denny and Craig are members of a once almost successful pop group with whom Alice and Susan moved from the Midwest to New York ten years earlier, old school and university friends seeking fame and fortune (and inevitably disappointed). Other members of the group eventually come under suspicion for the murder: Noah Mast, whose wife Rya, it will turn out, has been having an affair with Craig, and Ray Reschley who has sold the two men a large amount of cocaine but failed to get his money from them and is inevitably under pressure from his dealers. But then there are the unknown number of people to whom Susan and Denny lent the keys to their apartment and the unknown number of times they may have been copied...
A promising enough scenario, but for me it instantly failed to deliver, and by the time of the meeting I had managed to read only 50 pages, so tedious did I find the book (although I did force myself to finish it afterwards in order to write this up). The whole thing is seen through the eyes of the musing Alice, a clear authorial intention to make this thriller psychological, but she - along with all of the group - is so lacking in affect that right from the start I was unconvinced by the psychology and there was a consequent lack of tension to engage me in the plot. After her interview with the detective, Alice goes to Ray's apartment for dinner where Noah and Rya have also arrived, and is greeted at the door by Rya with, ' "Isn't it amazing?"
' "We're just shocked," said Rya, whose blond hair was wound on top of her head. If she unpinned it, it would fall down in a single shining mass, Alice knew. The only sense of expertise she ever got about Rya was when the other woman was arranging her hair or choosing clothes. "Just shocked, shocked. I can't express it."Ray arrives with takeout food which both the group and the author relish in a way I found unintentionally laughable in the situation, Rya 'moaning over the mo-shu pork, the oysters with straw mushrooms, the gong-bao chicken with charred red peppers and cashews, the sizzling rice soup, the shrimp toast.'
"Astonished. Dumbfounded," suggested Noah.
"Noah is shocked, too. Believe me. He teases to cover up."
"Floored. Taken aback."
"Don't make us laugh, Noah." '
If this is intended, as the New York Times Reviewer would have it, as the affectless 'cool' cultivated by thirties-something New Yorkers, I simply don't buy it. The murder of members of a longtime friendship group is surely the very thing to break through that 'cool', however disaffected the members may have become with each other. And although Rya's behaviour is commented on by her husband Noah as 'odd', it doesn't, in the hindsight allowed by the later knowledge that one of the murdered men was her (generally) secret lover, seem to me likely, however affected, or indeed much different from the almost indifferent behaviour of the others. (Alice has to wonder as they eat 'if the others were thinking constantly of Denny and Craig and Susan, as she was'). And if the general indifference (which makes for unlikeable characters I simply can't get interested in) is intended as an authorial manipulation to bring all of the characters under the reader's suspicion, it doesn't work for me, because only a few pages in I guessed correctly that Susan, Denny's partner, had committed the murder. Clare and Jenny, the two members of our group present who had liked the book, asked me how I had known. To begin with, Susan is glaringly significant as the only one not around, officially away when the murder takes place and therefore the only one who, if she did commit the murder, covered her tracks. Secondly, one of Susan's main characteristics is her neatness and organisation, and the murders are strikingly neat: both men sitting in their places and nothing in the room disturbed. Most importantly, when she returns and is told of the murder, although the one most likely in conventional terms to break down, she acts with the greatest cool and least affect of all.
Jenny objected that often in thrillers the most likely person turns out not to have done it, and I did briefly consider that this was a double-bluff on the part of the author, but there were other things that signalled to me that the author was simply not in command of the thriller mode. When Alice gets back after the meal to her flat she opens her bedroom door and is startled to find Susan, returned, in her bed (which indeed signals a kind of sneakiness and unpredictability on the part of Susan, and strongly links her, associatively and thematically, with the danger of duplicate keys - not to mention the giveaway fact of her having gone on her return to Alice's flat and not to her own where the murders have taken place). This means it must fall to (the unsuspecting) Alice, there and then, to tell her about the murder of her partner (though rather unconvincingly she puts it off for as long as possible). Alice gets into bed with Susan and snuggles up to her: 'And then, when Alice had her securely in her arms, she told her. After a minute or two, Susan disengaged herself and got up, went into the bathroom and closed the door.' During the subsequent silence from the bathroom, Alice falls asleep (which again doesn't seem all that likely: wouldn't she be on edge, wondering and worrying about her friend?), waking later to find Susan 'moving about like a mother in Alice's room', tidying up: 'Always well groomed, she was even more so now.' The narration presents this as unremarkable: 'If [Alice] expected wailing, she should not have, for Susan was not that way' and 'How typical of Susan, she thought, to face devastation with a cleanup.' However, this seemed to me a complete authorial fudge. The most significant moment - for both thriller and psychological mode - would be the moment of telling and those moments afterwards before Susan gets out of bed. How did she react in those moments? What expression was on her face? (The light isn't off.) What happened to her eyes? Did they widen? Her mouth? Did her face twitch? What about her breathing? Did she gasp? Did she make any sounds? In fact, she could have been made to have reactions that Alice and the reader could interpret as shock and horror but which in hindsight would turn out to be the guilt of a murderer, thus putting the reader off the scent. Instead, the author implies she had no facial reaction by telling us beforehand that Susan has a naturally calm and inexpressive face, an inadequate and psychologically unconvincing explanation for a blank reaction to such news, and then glosses the moment in which she is thus revealed as a cold bitch most likely to have committed the murder.
I stumbled too over a moment on the second page. The detective interviewing Alice asks her to confirm that while Susan was away she was watering the plants (which is how she came upon the murders). She replies, ' "I was supposed to. I told Susan I would come every three days." ' This supposed to immediately alerted me to the fact that she may not have done precisely as promised. This will eventually turn out to be the case, and there is a reason for her not having done so that will be the crucial clue incriminating Susan, and which, revealed in its true light at this stage, would give the game away from the start. However, it seemed to me unlikely that the detective wouldn't pick up on this very obvious hint that all was not as it was supposed to be, as indeed he fails to do, and since we are locked into the musing Alice's viewpoint, it seemed a glaring omission that we don't share knowledge of this reason. The clever thing for the author to have done would be to reveal the reason but find an alternative explanation for it that seems to let Susan off the hook, or indeed diverts attention away from her. Instead, the moment is glossed and left hanging, and it stuck out for me as a clumsily planted and inadequately smoothed-over clue.
Susan's motive for the murder is over-signalled throughout and yet psychologically obscure, pummelled at the reader in long speechy conversations between her and Alice over more relished exotic food, and amounting to nothing more than the fact that she couldn't bear any longer to go on living with the overriding obsession of two men obsessed with the stardom they never managed to grasp and can't believe they never will. ' "You've got to understand what it's like hearing the same conversations over and over for years... It hurt me. It literally made my skin prickle and my heart pound." ' If we are to accept that this emotional state was intense enough to drive her to murder we need a better, more dynamic insight into it, but as it is we need to take Susan's word for it. It seems to me that part of the reason the author fails to tackle this dimension is that she has set Susan up as so self-contained that such extremity in her is unlikely - not to mention the fact that crimes of passion don't tend to involve the kind of cold-blooded forward planning in which Susan turns out to have engaged: obtaining the gun, learning how to use it and planning her alibi. If, as in a conventional thriller, we are not to need to be convinced on such a psychological level, then Susan needs to have some more obvious and easily graspable motive.
So the chief problem for me is that though this purports to be a psychological thriller, the psychology of the characters is unconvincing or impossible to grasp, conveyed as it is through 'talky' speeches and narratorial 'telling' rather than properly dramatised interaction - though I should say that neither Clare nor Jenny had a problem with this. Since Susan is portrayed as so affectless, I found it impossible to understand why Alice has always been needy for her friendship (and is now guiltily glad of the opportunity the murder gives her to spend more time with her). It's not enough for the narrator to tell me, on behalf of Alice, that 'No one was like Susan, after all, no one thought about things as Susan did. Some quality of her mind was unique, attractive but indefinable, inaccessible' since Susan never came across to me as attractively mysterious but tediously blank. Immediately after finding the bodies, Alice meets a man with whom she becomes involved, a relationship involving a certain (if ambivalent) passion, and I found it psychologically unconvincing that she can't tell him about the murders, as did John. (Alice's musing rationale - 'Henry entering her present circle [would be] a complication of cruel proportions' - seemed to me merely authorial rationalisation for avoiding narrative complications.)
As for the thriller/plot element, Alice seems to come to the realisation that Susan is the murderer instinctually (rather than through the obvious clue planted at the start that should have told her the truth all along), and, on the psychological level, her continuing attachment to Susan after this realisation - and indeed even greater sense of satisfaction in the new closeness she imagines - seems unrealistic. When Susan eventually stalks Alice with a gun, there has been nothing planted beforehand to make us feel that this was inevitable or psychologically realistic: it seems merely a manipulated plot twist, and Alice's escape through a window and along a high ledge clinging to the building seems highly unlikely and smacks of nothing more than the insertion of a cliched cinema trope for the sake of a possible film version.
Once again, on the thriller/plot level: John thought it highly unlikely that only one detective should be involved in a double murder, as is the case, or that he should not make more effort to protect Alice from Susan if, as turns out, he suspected Susan all along (the lame excuse he gives is lack of manpower). Even Jenny and Clare, the book's defenders, found it laughable that, after being told by him to get her locks changed, Alice ends up abandoned by the locksmith and alone at night without a lock on her door or even the obvious emergency expedient of a bolt.
Ann summed up the book succinctly: that normally in a thriller you can in retrospect trace a pattern of clues as they were systematically planted, but that that wasn't possible with this novel, and that it didn't really work as either a thriller or a psychological novel.
Jenny however found the theme of faded dreams in this book socially realistic and compelling: she thought that there had been a real social phenomenon in the seventies of people moving to the city expecting to find fame and fortune and by the eighties becoming disillusioned.
The meeting had been sparsely attended, all of the men except John absent. Afterwards, I bumped into Trevor and Mark separately, and both said they felt as I did about the book, Mark having managed only 100 pages, and both had guessed from very near the beginning that Susan had committed the murders.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here