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A. H. Richards
on Sep. 04, 2013 :
Glenn Cutforth’s new novel is the strangest whodunit I have ever read. That’s not a bad thing. Even though I’m more a fan of forensic murder mysteries, this one had enough mystery of its own to keep me satisfied. More than that; Fiddling under Vesuvius has a beguiling charm and comic tone that are disarming. Cutforth keeps us happy with lines that are almost throw aways, like “I had more sweat dripping down my body than Casanova after a good day of being Casanova.” He also cleverly creates a narrator who surprises us even when nothing seems to be happening, with lines like... “I stared at the fish floating around in the tank and wondered what a life consisting of nothing but eating and swimming would be like. Eating, swimming and then dying and getting flushed down the toilet. For a moment I was envious.”
Then there’s the story proper. An arrogant, famous and successful playwright is murdered – and I’m giving nothing away because that’s dealt with on page one – and the narrator is, as they say, ‘in the frame.’ Lots of people are likely suspects, at least two of whom, a mystery woman and a brainless bodybuilder, would like to murder Casey: And at least two attempts are made on his life. That’s one of the mysteries snaking through the story. Who wants to murder somebody who can be so easily framed for murder himself?
But that’s only half the story – exactly what you would expect from a murder mystery. The other half is goofy, weird, metaphysical, and romantic. That seems like a lot to put in a novel, and it is; but the author successfully serves up this smorgasbord thanks in part to a writing style reminiscent of the old fifties and sixties hard-boiled detective stories, which cleverly gives much latitude for content and surprise. He has also created a protagonist, Casey Thomas, who lives a complicated life despite himself, and who is strange enough to be interesting throughout. He’s troubled, eccentric, even neurotic. I mean, what else would you call a wealthy, successful journalist who hides for hours under the bed, and who constantly sees a Native American ghost in army boots, carrying a fishing rod?
That’s the existential tip of the metaphysical iceberg that is half of the novel. The narrator carries a deeply painful secret that links him ominously with the murdered Hollywood celebrity, and which may even be a result of past karma. His romantic interest is gorgeous and psychic, has past lives with him, and owns a parrot named Al Bundy. Death stalks Casey, but, thankfully, life’s comedy keeps running defense for him, often enough for us to see his multi-dimensional portrait emerge naturally, day by day.
Casey wants to be machismo and fit, but can’t be bothered. He’s the kind of guy who hates vegetables and thinks daily exercise is a form of fascism. And yet he finds himself a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend who is a physical trainer... well, he doesn’t find her – destiny matches them up. In this whodunit, that’s not unbelievable.
If there is one fault to the book, I would say that there is sometimes too much information. Once in a while, paragraphs of insight, or nuttiness, or even digression, come between pieces of dialogue, and you have to reread to reorient yourself. However, it’s worth bearing with that, because most of what is said, in one strange way or another, proves to be a thread in the ultimate metaphysical tapestry. The novel is, ultimately, about existence as stage play, and actors finding meaning – or not. That it all plays out through a parodic hard-boiled tone, happily unpredictably, and with a cast worthy of a Rogers and Hammerstein movie, makes it an ever-interesting read.
(reviewed long after purchase)