Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dead Clever by Scarlett Thomas

I am pretty sure I had never heard of Scarlett Thomas until a week or so ago, when I read a review of her latest novel The End of Mr Y, which has a cursed book as its central motif. That wasn't available in Dunedin when I went looking (it has subsequently turned up in my library and is presently sitting on my desk), so I spent a little time checking out its author. She is actually up to seven published novels now, with quite a range - her first, Dead Clever, is an academic murder mystery while PopCo is about viral marketing and Bright Young Things is billed as a contemporary Lord of the Flies. Going Out is about a young fellow who is allergic to the sun so never leaves his house. On her website she mentions an idea I love: that an author is a machine for turning coffee into novels.

I wouldn't say that Dead Calm is in any sense the most serious book I have read (the epigraph from Kafka "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us" created expectations that weren't really met) but I liked it as an entertaining read.
Lily Pascoe has recently completed a MA (detective fiction) and has no further reason for staying in London: all she does is spend money she doesn't have and go for jobs she doesn't want (or get). When she realises that her man is not the one for her, is in fact cheating on her, that is the last straw: she retreats to Devon. Unlike any academic hiring process I have ever experienced, she immediately lands a job at the local university teaching crime and horror fiction and creative writing - all it takes is a phone call! There's quite a bit about her encounter with her new class, her encounter with the very charming and handsome colleague and with her less than endearing boss, Professor Valentine. Lily comes across as the kind of person it would be fun to know, even if some of her class preparation is unbelievably scanty.

I've called Dead Clever an academic murder mystery, but it is more Secret History than Inspector Morse, with maybe a touch of China Mieville. For a start, there is no conventional detective. Instead, it is Lily who more or less falls into the role. She finds that her class is a bit twitchy: one of their number has recently been murdered. When Jason tells her that he saw the murder and is then found dead, Lily doesn't buy the story that he had a drugs overdose. Perhaps because she's feeling guilty that she'd not really done anything for him when he obviously needed help, she starts exploring. It soon becomes clear that this is one very strange university (hence the abbreviated hiring process): all of her first year students seem to be drugged (rather than merely being on drugs), and they go off on mysterious field trips. Of course, she gets to the bottom of what is going on, with some suspense created (a) when she knows the purpose of the field trip and it turns out her brother's girlfriend is going on one and (b) she is caught by one of the conspirators.



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