Death of a Writer by Michael Collins

smcleish's review

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Originally published on my blog here.

Campus novels are not uncommon; novels about writers even less so. But Michael Collins has here produced an excellent novel, by incorporating a striking crime thriller theme into this self-consciously literary setting.

The title character is a literature professor at Bannockburn College, a once-famous writer whose punk-like attitude helped bring about a decline in his career to the point where a meeting with an old friend who is still a best-selling author drives him to a suicide attempt. While he remains near death, a postgraduate student from the English department discovers a lost novel in his home, published decades ago by a now defunct vanity press and apparently so thoroughly forgotten that it no longer appears on Pendleton's CV. Intrigued, Abi begins to read it, and is impressed by what turns out to be a first person narrative daringly written from the point of view of a child killer. She eventually manages to get Scream published, and it becomes a best-seller as well as restoring Pendleton's literary reputation. But then a few people begin to realise that the crime depicted bears a close resemblance to a real cold case from local area.

Considered as a crime thriller, The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton moves at a glacially slow pace. It will, however, retain the interest of a genre fan because of the idea behind the plot. The extra space is used to include elements from literary fiction, particularly to develop the characterisation of Abi. The themes of the novel seem to be the way that bad choices come back to haunt us, and the relationship between fiction and reality - does Pendleton's depiction of the crime in Scream make him the criminal, someone who spoke to the criminal, or someone with a imagination unfortunately too close to that of the killer?

A touch of patience from thriller fans will be well rewarded. There are some fantasic scenes, such as the interrogation of another author and academic by the police, where he deconstructs the questions as though they are texts relating to an academic study of the philosophy of crime genre fiction.

All the main characters in The Secret Life are failures of one sort or another, at least in their own eyes, and are generally not at all reconciled to being so. There is the perennial student, the once fêted writer who cannot maintain his early promise, the writer who pursued commercial success and despises himself for it, the policeman unsatisfied by his second marriage, not to mention the people originally suspected of the murder, none of whom have done anything with their lives. They are not particularly likeable, either, which is something which usually makes it harder for me to enjoy a book; but this time, it did not, because of the interest of the idea and the complexity of the characters (who do at least have sympathetic traits as well).

The title is one of the poorest parts of The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton, being long, awkward, and unmemorable, as well as saying little about the themes of the novel. It has also been published as Death of a Writer, which is misleading and not very good either. A couple of minutes' thought suggested A Murder in Fiction, but I think that with only a modicum of effort, this too could be bettered.

spygrl1's review

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The novel concerns itself not just with the investigation of a crime, but also with issues of authorship/appropriation, responsibility, and the ways in which one person influences the life of another, sometimes directly and profoundly, sometimes secretly and subtly.

The book begins with E. Robert Pendleton, a failure. He is a professor of English at small Bannockburn College. He does not like his job, or anything else about his lot in life. He has had occasional breakdowns, and this Homecoming weekend seems destined to bring him to another crisis as his rival, the best-selling Allen Horowitz, is coming to Bannockburn to speak. Pendleton decides to kill himself.

But Pendleton fails even to take his own life, as Adi Wiltshire (a comely grad student with no thesis in sight) and campus photographer Henry James Wright arrive in time to "save" him; Pendleton lives, but his stroke-ravaged mind is reduced to relearning the alphabet.

Adi steps in as caretaker. Stashed in Pendleton's basement she discovers unopened boxes of a novel, Scream, that he published through a vanity press. It seems to have been sitting in his basement for 10 years.

Adi realizes that Scream is Pendleton's masterpiece, a griping account of existential crisis. The book is largely autobiographical, telling the story of an unhappy professor at a small Midwestern college. Adi and Horowitz get Scream republished, the celebrity author's attention substantially raising the profile of the work.

Scream's protagonist kills a young girl and dismembers her body; he dies when his car crashes in a storm. Adi sees parallels between the book and the case of Amber Jewell, a local girl whose dismembered corpse was found in a field. In her thesis, she plans to explore how Pendleton found inspiration in real events.

Adi's research reveals that Pendleton's book was published before Amber's body was found. The possibility that Pendleton could have committed the murder stuns Adi, who burns the incriminating invoice that pinpoints Scream's original publication date.

But a tape is mailed to the police; the distorted voice hints that Pendleton should be a suspect in the Jewell case. Investigator Jon Ryder--with his own baggage of a missing wife and a daughter who accuses him of murder--comes to seek the truth.

The revived interest in Amber's death leads to more deaths and buried secrets. And there are questions of art: Will Scream win the National Book Award? Can a book that relies on the author's own experiences be called fiction? When does inspiration cross into autobiography?

There's a messiness to the book that I appreciated. Some questions are answered, others are not. People come tantalizingly close to the truth only to turn aside. Information is withheld, or misinterpreted, or lost.

"Fiction requires a more rigorous discipline than all other art ... The stakes are so much higher, the audience is that much more intimate with language than any other medium of expression. You must get things just right. There have been child prodigies in music and mathematics, because there are elemental laws of accord and discord, but where are the child prodigies of literature? Are there any? That's a question."

"Don't slight commercial success so easily. It's not so easy to sell out--that's the pejorative popular term, right? What I want to know is, how come people like you are so seduced by the notion of an artistic relativism that elevates a lack of rigor and so-called open-endedness to an art form? Is artistic obtuseness so seductive because everything becomes relative? Is its appeal is relative mediocrity?

"Have you ever considered this might be the first epoch where there are no geniuses, that all modern art is a sham? Can one truly compare Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and if so, why not elevate the Manson family murders to pop art, to the level of an Andy Warhol, or vice versa?"

kristiana's review

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Kind of creepy, but in a good twisted literary way.

dearbhla's review

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The E. Robert Pendleton of the title is a professor struggling to keep his tenure at Bannockburn College where he lectures in English. He is also an author; although recently he has been suffering from writer’s block. He hasn’t had any successful books in years. And he is feeling the strain. A strain made even worse when an old rival shows up to give a guest lecture. This rival is a best-selling author; in many ways he represents everything that Pendleton yearns for.

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