Uncommon Mystery - Wit's End

Aug 13, 2009

Murray, KY – Have you ever loved a story or a book so much that you've imagined the characters to be real? What if they literally became real? Author Karen Joy Fowler blurs this line between fiction and reality in her latest novel, Wit's End, in which the protagonist takes residence in the home of a famous mystery writer and finds herself to be the subject of fanatical blog posts. Commentator Michael Cohen peaks through the pages of this humorous and transformative Uncommon Mystery.

I went to a concert in the late sixties to see a Canadian singing duo called Ian and Sylvia. One of their original songs, "Four Strong Winds," had been high on the charts a few years before. When they started this song, the audience began to sing it, and when Ian and Sylvia Tyson tried to change the words in the third verse, they were drowned out by the crowd's singing of the lyrics that had been on the record. Just whose song was it, I wondered at the time.

This question of who really owns a creative project like a song or in this case a book's characters, is taken up by Karen Joy Fowler in her 2008 mystery, Wit's End. In this book, Rima Lansill, saddened and confused by the deaths of her mother, father, and younger brother, arrives at Wit's End, the Santa Cruz shoreline house of her godmother, the mystery writer Addison Early. She comes for a kind of rest cure and stays to solve a mystery.

The mystery is partly what the relationship was between Rima's father and Addison, a relationship that would prompt Addison to put Rima's father in one of her mysteries as a serial killer, complete with his real name. But there's also a stalker who haunts the coast house and who may or may not be the same woman who writes fan letters to Addison's fictional detective and who may or may not have grown up in a cult called the Holy City with the person who inspired the character of the detective.

At the house called Wit's End, Rima encounters a cast of eccentrics that includes Tilda the tattooed cook, her unpleasant son Martin, the dog walkers Scorch and Cody, and various strangers who have trouble distinguishing between fact and fiction. The detective in Addison's books becomes a regular visitor in Rima's dreams, and she finds herself drawn into an investigation that puts her in danger from those who have been deranged by their bizarre and violent past.

Karen Joy Fowler has had several bestselling books, the most recent being The Jane Austen Book Club. She's not really a mystery writer. What I mean by that is that her attention is always less with pacing Rima's discoveries and clearly elucidating the mystery, always more with the developing new social order at Wit's End, as well as whether and how Rima will fit into it. As she has shown from previous books, some of which combine historical and science fiction, she's a little bit of a genre bender. But she kept me reading with a really ingratiating style that is often funny and never mistakes sarcasm for wit.

Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. "Wit's End" by Karen Joy Fowler was first published by Putnam in 2008 and was reprinted in 2009 by Penguin Plume.