Mystery Man

My mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Mystery Man by Colin Bateman. It was a good discussion, as always, about a book that struck me as strange. The book didn’t quite come together for me, but it was very funny, at least in places, and kind of a puzzle to think about. What made it so odd was the fact that it’s written in first person from the point of view of a man who is mentally disturbed, to one degree or another. It’s a little hard to tell just what’s going on with him because, of course, he’s the narrator and we get no other perspective on the story. This made reading the book as uncomfortable as it was amusing.

The narrator is strange, paranoid, and often kind of nasty, although this is presented in a funny way. He lives in Belfast and owns a mystery book shop, and he’s the kind of guy who sells a customer a map when they ask for directions, even though he could easily point the way. He needs to make money after all. And there are scenes like this one:

So he gave me their number and said they were on the Newtownards Road and I thanked him for his time and still suitably enthused, or bored, I was about to phone them when the shop door opened and a man came in and asked if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said, yes, if you’re a moron.

It’s enough to make me wonder how in the world this guy (unnamed) ever keeps a bookstore open. His methods of drumming up business involve hosting events like Serial Killer Week, and inviting the famous author Brendan Coyle to teach creative writing classes. Coyle is a local author of literary fiction who “dabbles” in crime writing every now and then (and could be, as Emily points out, John Banville/Benjamin Black):

He is a vain, boorish snob, and sometimes I wonder why I ever bothered inviting him to teach a monthly creative writing class in No Alibis.

Then I remember that it’s because he does it for nothing and that I also sell a lot of books off the back of his visits. The only reason he does it for free is that I convinced him that he should be giving something back to ‘his’ people, and he was sucker enough to fall for it. I like to think that every minute he spends talking twaddle in No Alibis in one minute fewer spent trying to write crime, which is a blessing for us all.

The narrator turns into a detective when the real detective in the shop next door disappears. The missing detective’s customers wander over into the mystery bookshop hoping they can find some help there. The narrator is skeptical of their plaintive requests for help at first, but he soon gets caught up in the fun of solving cases, all of which he gives a name such as The Case of Mrs. Geary’s Leather Trousers or The Case of the Fruit on the Flyover. Eventually a really big case comes along, The Case of the Musical Jews (or, in earlier editions of the book, The Case of the Dancing Jews — Bateman changed details in later editions to make his story different from the real-life story of a woman named Helen Lewis).

The narrator needs to be pushed into taking on this big case, however. As a paranoiac, he is utterly afraid of just about everything, and he knows this case could be dangerous. It’s the woman who works across the street, Alison, the woman whom the narrator has had a crush on and has spied on for years, who is enthusiastic enough about taking on detective work to push the narrator into it. He keeps calling her his sidekick and getting upset when she takes too much initiative, but it seems pretty clear that she provides much of the brains and just about all of the energy and ambition of their operation. The two of them, along with the narrator’s assistant, Jeff, work together with varying degrees of competence and sanity until the case is solved.

Bateman’s sense of humor isn’t exactly mine, but still, there was an awful lot in this book that was funny, and the book seemed even funnier during the group discussion, as we retold the best stories and laughed over them. Hobgoblin loved this book and particularly the narrator, but for me, there was something about him that never quite came into focus. I wasn’t sure exactly how reliable he was, if at all, and if he’s completely unreliable, then where does that leave the reader? There weren’t many opportunities to see the narrator from other people’s perspectives in order to begin to figure him out, and there was a lot he never told us about himself. The book is very much a spoof of detective novels, which is part of the fun of it, but it was hard to tell whether it was merely a spoof, or whether there was something more serious going on at the same time.

I also had trouble believing the relationship between the narrator and Alison. He has had a crush on her forever, pretty much, and the story of how they meet is fun. But after that, there are a number of scenes where he treats her quite badly, and she is always ready to forgive and forget, unrealistically, worryingly so. But, again, I was unsure how seriously to take all this. Is the author mocking wildly unrealistic relationships in novels, or … not? I kept hoping for some answers to these questions and never really found them.

I wonder whether I would have had these problems had the author’s sense of humor been more like my own. We discussed in our group the possibility that Irish readers might find the book funnier and more coherent than American readers. Bateman seems to be writing for an Irish audience (which makes sense, of course) and does little to help readers from elsewhere along. Maybe it partly boils down to a matter of culture.

14 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

14 responses to “Mystery Man

  1. Roh

    This sounds really interesting! I’m going to find it, and buy it, and read it. (Unless my library has it.)

    It’ll be interesting to see what that humour looks like to my Indian eyes.

    Thanks.

  2. Heh. I know what you’re saying about elements not quite coming together, but from the excerpts you posted it seems like this might be worth checking out just for the laughs it would provide. The narrator’s misanthropy certainly seems amusing and well-evoked.

    And I very much relate to the experience of a moderately funny book/movie seeming much funnier when relived in company.

  3. I like the sense of humor from the excerpts, but I’m not sure if I’d like it throughout a whole book. Was the mystery itself compelling, or is that a side note to the main character and his personality?

  4. Well, I’m glad you’ve read this because after what you’ve said here I can safely knock it off my tbr pile. Passages such as you’ve quoted would have me throwing the book out of the nearest window. I know I wouldn’t get on with this narrator and that always makes reading a book a seriously difficult for me. Thank you.

  5. I’m wondering whether it is a particularly Irish sense of humour. Something about those passages really reminded me of Beckett, and his grungy, sometimes aggressive, black humour. What an interesting choice for a book group – much better to have a tricky read that needs deconstructing than a novel everyone loves unreservedly.

  6. Terrific review. I’d say it definitely is a cultural thing. The book is very cynical, and the humor is dark, while also (I was sure) being full of exaggeration. For instance, for the longest time, I wasn’t sure if the narrator really did suffer from almost every neurosis known to man, or if he was merely exaggerating. By the the end, I decided he wasn’t exaggerating, which made it very funny in the beginning but much darker in the end. Still, I enjoyed it immensely and hope to read more.

  7. Interesting and it sounds like a good book to provoke discussion.

  8. Even with the flaws you mention, the book sounds interesting enough to check the library for…not that I expect it will be there. Maybe I should just put it on my Wish List! Easy to understand from the quotes how it would provoke discussion.

  9. Even though the book didn’t completely click for you, it still sounds like you enjoyed it somewhat. And it sounds a bit different from run-of-the-mill mysteries

  10. I started to think it was just the fact of the unreliable narrator that bothered you, that maybe you just didn’t want to resign yourself to his lack of reliability. :) But it does sound like there were just plain disjointed elements. Did you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time? I thought that was an excellent example of getting inside the head of someone who’s head is different, and if the reader could buy into the unreliable narrator, a real treat. But I know not everyone enjoyed that one. I thought The Curious Incident was well done, though, and it sounds like maybe this one was not so much.

  11. I sort of like unreliable narrators, but after reading the excerpts you share I wonder if he wouldn’t unnerve me a little bit. The only Irish crime novels I can think of that I’ve read, aside from the Benjamin Black is Tana French, but neither seem quite that black. I’d not heard of this author before–your group picks such a good variety of authors. I might get on with him if you get a sense of place as well as personality?

  12. I really enjoyed this, I found the unreliable narrator and his quirks hilarious and enjoyed the send up of crime fiction conventions while still being convinced by and interested in the cases. Re the narrator’s relationship with Alison, I think it’s more likely when you bear in mind she doesn’t hear his thoughts like the reader does!

    (I’m Australian not Irish but don’t think this stopped me enjoying the book).

  13. Roh — I don’t think it’s widely available in the U.S., which is too bad. We bought it from a bookseller who imported it. I hope you find a copy and enjoy it!

    Emily — yes, and movies are often funnier if seen with an audience that’s laughing a lot. I love that experience. The misanthropy is certainly fun, especially when it’s directed at people who read bad books :)

    Debby — the mystery was NOT compelling, or at least the way he solved it was disappointing. But in a book that is mocking mystery novel conventions, it sort of makes sense. You could read the disappointing resolution as part of the mockery. And I think the book was too long — the author could have cut quite a bit and it would have been an improvement.

    Annie — it’s funny how some commenters find the quotations funny and others hate them! I’m glad to help knock something off your TBR pile. If you didn’t like those quotations, you would HATE the book.

    Litlove — it was a great choice for the book group, because there was tons to talk about and to try to sort out. Interesting point about Beckett; I hadn’t thought of that. It’s definitely aggressive, black humor, so I think the comparison works.

    Emily B. — oh, that’s funny because I concluded he WAS exaggerating! He really is a hemophiliac? That was what was so unsettling about the book — it’s so hard to pin the guy down and draw any conclusions about him. It was very disorienting.

    Lilian — definitely. It was a good discussion, although with that group, it’s always a good discussion.

    Jenclair — I don’t think the library would have it, unfortunately; I don’t think it’s widely available in the U.S. I hope you can find a copy! I’d love to know what you make of it.

    Stefanie — I did enjoy reading it, mostly. It’s well over 400 pages long, but it read very fast and was absorbing. It also provoked a lot of thought, which was good. It’s definitely different from your standard mystery! (Although almost all the books we’ve read in my group have stood out from run-of-the-mill mysteries.)

    Pagesofjulia — interesting comparison. I liked The Curious Incident quite a lot, and I agree that it was very well done. In that book it was possible to draw some conclusions about the narrator, but Mystery Man resists that. I like unreliable narrators, but I guess not if they are TOO unreliable! :)

    Danielle — Hobgoblin came across this one at a bookstore, and I’m not sure what inspired him to pick it up. But it was an import, so maybe the shop owner recommended it. Bateman doesn’t create a strong sense of place, although there are hints about what the city is like. But you get a sense of the place through the narrator’s mind, so it’s a very … fragmented sense. I must read Tana French one day soon!

    Sarah — we were wondering in my book group whether Alison doesn’t quite have it all together like the narrator. It would explain quite a few of her strange actions. I think the mockery of crime fiction is one of the best parts of the book — I enjoyed that a lot too.

  14. Jordan

    Not a big fan of mysteries myself, but I’m sure this will convince many people to go and find this book. Excellent job!

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