As I read Miss Homicide Plays the Flute by Brendan Connell, a line from the film Psycho ran through my mind: “It’s a strange hobby. Curious.”
Of course, I substituted book for hobby. And I like strange. I like curious even better. Most likely if you don’t enjoy curious or strange you aren’t going to enjoy Miss Homicide Plays the Flute. No matter which term you use—avant-garde, experimental, surreal, weird—you probably aren’t going to find this book prominently displayed at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore (although I do believe it’s available on their website).
To begin, the main character, Serena Plievier, is a flautist and assassin. She’s talented and sexy. She thinks sneaking into someone’s room is “bad manners”. She prefers not to kill young people and enjoys murdering creatively: “Really, she was not exceedingly keen on those modern and uncreative methods, which were such a degradation from the ways of the ancients. She looked with scorn on the knifings and gunshots by which people fell murdered in the street everyday, the empty-headed goons who were hired to sink some poor devil in a large body of water with a weight secured to his leg.”
Her business card could read Serena Plievier, artist, killer, flautist. One chapter, albeit a brief one, is taken “From a Catalogue of Serena’s Crimes”, and illustrates that while she is not above stabbing someone to death with a screwdriver, she most likely prefers poisoning her target with an umbrella or with “an extract of the Lonomia obliqua caterpillar”.
The main plot focuses on Serena and her targets. The first case, which opens the book, is simple enough: kill the target and retrieve stolen merchandise. She executes it perfectly.
She returns home, plays in a concert, and then is approached with a second assignment: to assassinate a young person. Her response: “A twenty-year-old boy? That sounds like rather miserable work.” Even after the price has been named, and it’s a good sum, she says “Still, I really don’t like to work with such young material.” But she takes the assignment and for the rest of the book situates herself into the young man’s life as she tries to finds a way to kill him “in some kind of graceful fashion—so it does not look like a—like liquidation.”
Perhaps there’s nothing particularly curious about an assassin assassinating, but this main plot is only one element of the book. In between the more plot-based chapters are other chapters, chapters that are a little difficult to describe collectively. Chapter V Part C, for example, provides names of well-known flautists, think Theodorus the Boetian, Hermippus, and Hadrian, Emperator. The first part of this same chapter includes a footnote that details the three types of prostitutes found in ancient Greece. Another chapter includes recipes such as “A way to kill”, “An excellent way to cause Death” and “An assured way to cause Death”, a recipe that includes sesame oil, rosewater, white lead, and oleander leaf.
Some chapters appear to be more poetry than prose, and Connell can make even the ugliest of things seem beautiful. Another unusual aspect of the book is that it lives up to the blurb on the back: “A relentless symphony of pleasantries and things unpleasant sketched with the inimitable style of a master’s hand.” The descriptive language particularly stands out, from the over the top “Demons vomited putrid yellow acid on them, like molten gold, which made them cry out in the most superb pain” to the deceptively simple “An oyster slid between Gemma’s thick red lips.”
In an interview, Connell was asked what might “pique” someone’s interest in this book. His response:
Nothing about this book will pique anyone’s interest. People of good taste will read it and be disgusted but admit that there are some good lines in it. People who like horror will shudder and talk about wilting flowers. The great critics probably won’t read it. Lovers of Young Adult Literature will hate it. It will be labeled as trash. Some people will scour the internet for signed copies. Others will abandon their copies on trains or give them to their perverted 19 year old cousins.
Indeed, this probably isn’t a book that will find mainstream success (not that this is really a criticism—keep in mind the quality of books that often achieve mainstream success). Simply put, it’s not a book for everyone. It has a cover that appears to be art in and of itself. It’s playful and witty but disturbing and strange.
If you like getting lost in language and a book that resists fixity and linearity (and don’t mind hearing about people’s entrails being eaten by pigs), consider spending a few hours with Miss Homicide. If you like a story that might have just one too many tangents, consider picking up this book. If you’re a big fan of Mary Higgins Clark, The Hunger Games or books that demand little of their audiences, perhaps keep looking for your next read.