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9 january 2010
I greatly enjoyed Michael Connelly's serial-killer novel The Poet, which I found recently in a thrift store for sixty-six cents. It is tightly wound, gruesome, and keeps the reader off-balance throughout. It's an entertainment in the Silence of the Lambs mode, if your idea of entertainment is reading about butchered corpses. But though I'll review almost anything here, I might have passed on The Poet if not for Stephen King's comment in the introduction to the Warner paperback edition:
I do not use the word classic lightly, but I believe that The Poet may well prove to be one. Sometimes a novelist sends us a wonderful message between the lines: "I am capable of much more than I thought." (xiii)A principle of literary criticism is that a critic is usually talking more about himself than about the book or author he's discussing. So we may learn less about Michael Connelly and The Poet from King's remarks than we do about Stephen King and, say, Misery, a minor classic of metafiction in its own right.
But for the moment, I'd like to take King's suggestion at face value. Which means, first of all, dismissing it. I mean, The Poet is a solid fifteen-minute egg of a book, but it's nothing you are going to want to read and re-read. It's not The Great Gatsby, or The Maltese Falcon, or even Last Chance to See. In literary terms, even especially in terms of the canon of genre fiction, there is little to choose between The Poet and a similar serial-killer novel like The Prettiest Feathers (1997) by John Philpin and Patricia Sierra (which, like The Poet, gives us the perspectives of the detective and the killer in alternating-chapter counterpoint). And there are plenty of other good serial-killer novels out there.
(What follows may be construed as containing spoilers, but the novel was published in 1996, so 14 years later, I feel OK revealing one of its plot dynamics: not least because King's introduction to the paperback hints at that same revelation, and I'm interested in that very hint.)
King's hyperbolic appreciation of The Poet hinges on two factors: one, he was surprised by its ending, and two, it creeped him out. (A book that scared Stephen King! that's like a comic who cracked up Steven Wright.) Well, as to finding a book scary, there's no accounting for subjectivity; I was recently terrified by a technical discussion of radio frequencies. And as to being surprised by a twist ending, please. The Poet nails its villain on page 416. It's 501 pages long. Unless you expect the last 85 pages of every thriller you read to be taken up with the hero having a few beers and kicking back, you know darn well that there's a twist coming, and probably another twist-and-a-half on top of that one. "Think of how you felt the first time you discovered who really killed Roger Ackroyd," King urges us (xii) – but that's the whole point. Agatha Christie invented every twist ending known to the detective novel, and ever since, all we've done is ring changes on her themes. (Not to mention that it isn't clear who killed Roger Ackroyd, after all.)
I found The Poet gripping, but the most remarkable thing about it for me was not its originality (modest) or its creepiness (mild – I mean, if you were abducted by a real-life Poet you'd go mad with terror, sure, but having met Hannibal Lecter in fiction, you are not much shocked by his literary avatars; and by 2009, situations like that of The Poet were appearing on episodes of Law & Order SVU).
No, what I found intriguing about The Poet is the peculiar epoch of the novel's technology. Communications and media have been advancing at such an exponential rate that it's no longer adequate, in thinking your way into the world of a fiction, simply to adjust for its being from the era of the telephone or before, or that of the Internet or before, or some such broad-brush dating. Novels written after about 1990 fall into exceedingly narrow slices of current technology, the histories of which we'll one day be able to write by looking back at such fictions of the present moment.
The Poet takes place in a mid-1990s sliver of time when:
- Laptop computers are not unheard of
- Cell phones are unheard of
- You can make phone calls from an airplane, using a credit card to unlock the handset in the back of the seat in front of you
- The Internet is up and running, in some cases even wireless, but seems to consist mostly of monochrome screens with lots of asterisks on them
- E-mail exists only in a primitive form where documents arrive in one's "computer basket"
- Digital cameras exist, but they are a cutting-edge technology; still-photo digital cameras cost at least $1000 exclusive of all the trimmings needed to make them work, and are so rare that most cops don't even know what they are. They need to be special-ordered from a handful of dealers – and this becomes a crucial plot point in the novel's climax
All this stuff is kind of beside the point of whether the novel works as a suspenser (it does). But it's fascinating to work through all the narrative devices allowed and disallowed by the shifting technological landscapes of recent fiction. If we're still reading The Poet in 50 years, it may be as data for a detailed calibration of the onslaught of new technologies.
Connelly, Michael. The Poet. 1996. New York: Warner, 2004.