Dark Passages: The Anxious Fiction of Emily St. John Mandel

My newest LA Times column looks at THE SINGER’S GUN, the new novel from Emily St. John Mandel that will very much appeal to crime fiction readers, though it doesn’t quite fit neatly inside genre lines, as I explain in the opening paragraphs:

Crime fiction, for good or for ill, adheres to a discrete series of

states. Order out of chaos — that’s the mystery novel, hard-boiled or

cozy, in a nutshell. Chaos out of order — that’s the ethos of noir.

Those existential constraints are equal parts limiting and liberating.

But when the world itself refuses to stick to these scripts

(Eyjafjallajökull, anyone?) and a healthy dose of escapism can’t quite

convince people that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world,

something a little more ambiguous, even ambitious, is called for.

Emily Mandel’s two novels to date are essentially crime fiction viewed

through a series of cracked, opaque mirrors. Her much-lauded debut novel

“Last Night in Montreal” (Unbridled: 248 pp., $15.95 paper), had

it stayed within the comforts of genre lines, would have been a

straightforward account of a Philip Marlowe-style private detective with

a big secret on a perpetual search for a parental kidnapping victim.

That storyline would have made for a fine first effort, but the reading

experience of “Last Night in Montreal” is more rewarding for the

multiple vantage points on offer, shining a veritable halogen lamp upon

that grown-up girl’s obsession with disappearance and reinvention, those

left baffled by her actions, and the general nagging feeling of not

being who you’re supposed to be or making the right decision — or the

wrong one.

Mandel’s talent is clearly visible from the get-go, but what’s more

pleasing is the added strength and control of her far superior sophomore

effort, “The Singer’s Gun” (Unbridled: 288 pp., $24.95).

Lingering narrative tentativeness and some wobbly sentences have all but

disappeared here, as carryover themes of identity confusion and

fractured relationships and newer explorations of pervasive corruption

and moral quagmires deepen and ripen. The net effect is akin to an Eric

Ambler novel with greater development of internal consciousness for

multiple protagonists…

Read on for the rest. THE SINGER’S GUN stayed with me in a way that much of what I’ve read so far in 2010 has not, and I suspect the experience will reward those who give the book a shot. The novel’s received a great deal of love from independent booksellers, who designated it their #1 pick for May’s IndieNext list.