'The Book Of Murder' is a title that many a seasoned crime-fiction fan would find hard to resist. Though I myself tend to only dabble in the Agatha-Christies, I read Guillermo Martinez's 'The Oxford Murders' a couple of years ago and thought it was nothing short of a masterpiece. So, faced with another of the Argentinian author's murderous novels, I must say I was lining myself up for a treat.
To start with, I was very much hooked. The book is narrated by a struggling author (who is unnamed throughout the book) living in Buenos Aires. One morning he receives an unexpected phone call from an old typist of his, Luciana. They hadn't met or spoken in ten years. Luciana sounds desperate and terrified as she begs the author to meet up with her.
When they do meet, Luciana has clearly changed a great deal in the ten-year transition from 18 to 28. Not only is she considerably plumper but she appears to have sections of bare scalp on her head, as if her hair has been torn out in a neurotic fit. The explanation? Luciana believes that Kloster (another author and the narrator's rival) is killing off her family, one by one. It appears that Luciana had once worked for Kloster, but left her job accusing him of sexual harassment. The allegation caused Kloster's wife to divorce him. Now, with her boyfriend, parents and brother dead, Luciana is certain that Kloster is getting his revenge. Kloster, on the other hand, claims that it is all coincidence.
Sounds good so far, right? I was thoroughly intrigued from the beginning, and as I read further the plot seemed to grow more and more complex. The dizzying intricacy of the plot made my head spin, and all the while I thought to myself what an excellent book this was, and what a fool I was for listening to the critics' derogations.
It was only really when I got to about Chapter 10 (there are 12 chapters) that I began to get a bit worried. Luciana's dilemma was becoming like an ever-increasing web which Martinez had not seen fit to untangle as of yet. In most murder mysteries I have found that small hints are dropped from time to time, but I didn't seem to have picked up on a single one. I wondered if I was merely being dense. However, as I got to the end of the book I realised it wasn't just me - there really aren't any hints because the book doesn't actually appear to have an ending.
I think most people would agree that for murder mysteries especially, the ending must be rock-solid, otherwise it tarnishes the rest of the book. However, 'The Book Of Murder's ending was possibly the weakest I have ever seen. It was bordering on 'Then I woke up and it was all a dream' on the weakness scale. The book had such a meaty concept that you could really get your teeth into, but reading the end it was as if I discovered I wasn't eating meat but rather a pathetic stick of candy-floss. I don't want to go on about it but I really haven't been so disappointed by a book since I read Lemony Snicket's 'The End' years ago.
I got the sense that everything all just got a bit too big for Guillermo Martinez. As his plot thickened, it was as if it had spun out of control and the author was unable to rein it in, even at the very end. To be fair, he had a brilliant idea to begin with, and I feel that if Martinez had stuck closer to his original vision, this book might have been more successful.
The book was originally written in Spanish, and has been translated into English. The original title was 'La muerte lenta de Luciana B' or 'The slow death of Luciana B'. I think this does slightly affect the reading of the book as it puts the focus on different things, but on the whole I don't think it affects the perception of the quality of the book. I don't think the style of writing is affected by translation too much - although I'm no authority on the matter since I don't speak Spanish - because the narration was clear and fluid and the descriptions were often elegant and polished. I supposed it could be suggested that Martinez had written an amazing ending which resolved all the dilemmas and answered all the questions, but the details were lost in translation. I don't really believe this; I think there would have to have been a really serious translation fault for that to occur.
I also found the fact that Martinez used a nameless author to narrate the novel a bit clichéd - I've read countless novels about authors and they all seem to have an autobiographical slant which can be rather tiresome. I mean, as an author, surely it is rather unimaginative to write about your own trade? That's the feeling I get anyway, although having said that I did enjoy Robert Harris' 'The Ghost'.
After finishing the novel in about two weeks (I usually read about the chapter a night, with the chapters being around 30 pages each) I felt disappointed and annoyed. In fact, I felt that my time had been completely wasted, because the book didn't form any sort of conclusion. It was pretty much a pointless book (hence the broken pencil in the title) which I could have done without. I am giving it two stars purely because it was based on such a clever concept, and I did enjoy the book until I realised that it was really just one big rhetorical question. But as I said, the ending is probably the most important part of a novel, especially a murder mystery, and this is where the plot seemed to stumble and fall flat on its face.