Death of a Writer


Michael Collins


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

April 26, 2008

picked up this book off of the shelf at the library because it has an impressive array of endorsements on the cover. I had never heard of the book nor the author, but it is a great pleasure to discover an unexpected gem of a book, such as The Life of Pi or Perfume, and since Michael Collins had been short listed for the Booker Prize, there was a real possibility that Death of a Writer could be one of those discovered treasures. So I signed the book out of the library and read it. Check out these impressive endorsements:

“A stunning tour de force that does a masterful dance through many genres.”—Seattle Post Intelligencer

“Death of a Writer is as caustic as it is brilliant.”-Washington Post Book World

“Michael Collins tears into literary academe with great comic gusto.”—New York Times Book Review

One thing this book is NOT is comic. There is nothing funny in this novel. It is populated entirely with awful characters, most without any redeeming qualities. The first eighty pages of the book are an especially tough slog - it describes an elite liberal arts college named Bannockburn located somewhere in the midwest - but the description is entirely negative. Second rate professors provide uninspired lectures, the sole purpose of the college is to metriculate these wealthy students - give them a meaningless degree while charging tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, and hopefully they will become wealthy contributing alumni. Appearances are everything, the wealthy elite will pay for the trappings of an authentic college - and thus the burned out professor of English, Robert Pendleton, must keep publishing his worthless novels and poems, despite the fact that no one ever reads them. Collins describes a scheme were professors write glowing reviews endorsing each others works, even though they all privately think the material of their compatriots is just trash (if they bother to read it at all.)

Disgusted with his situation, in despair of ever writing anything of merit ever again, Pendleton decides to commit suicide. Pendleton botches the suicide attempt, and while he is recovering in the hospital, his aide, an unlikeable ambitious woman named Adi, goes through Pendleton's notes and unpublished works, looking for something that she can publish and establish her reputation. Pendleton was once a famous novelist, but he has produced nothing of note in decades. But Adi finds an unfinished novel called Scream, which is unlike anything Pendleton has previously published - it seems to be an novel detailing the gruesome murder of a thirteen year old girl. Adi turns the manuscript over to a publisher. Coupled with the story of Pendleton's near suicide, Scream becomes a best seller, but Pendleton is so brain damaged he may not even be able to appreciate his return to relevancy.

The novel gets better when Ryder is introduced. Ryder is a detective who notices some disturbing details in Scream that coincide with an actual unsolved murder case. He begins to investigate all these unpleasant people, and everything he uncovers just makes you loathe them all the more. Unfortunately, not even Ryder is a likeable character. He is peristent, observant and smart, Ryder is an excellent detective, but Collins shows us his disasterous home life, his emotional detachment. Collins doesn't want the reader to like anyone in this book.

Eventually, we learn a the truth about whether a murder was committed, and why. It is a clever plot, and perhaps that is why the book gets such glowing reviews (or were those blurbs written by English professors who didn't even read Death of a Writer, perhaps the blurb writers are simply expecting Collins to return the favor on their next published works??) I am not sure the ending is worth the journey, spending all that time with the unsavory characters.