There’s something to be said about literary thrillers that masquerade as treatises on the art of writing. Raymond Chandler famously wrote one, The Long Goodbye, which was less about Philip Marlowe solving a case as it was a digression into how a novel gets written.
Andrew Pyper, a Canadian author with three previous novels under his belt, tackles the same template here in The Killing Circle, which is not so much a mystery or a thriller (which it is, assuredly) as it is about one writer’s attempts to write a novel based on someone else’s work. It is also a biting account about toiling on the fringes of entertainment journalism. At least, in the novel’s first half.
The novel concerns a single father and TV columnist, Patrick Rush, who joins a literary writing circle in his attempt to fulfill one of his life’s ambitions: writing a novel. In that circle, he meets Angela, who weaves a story about a serial killer named the Sandman. At the same time in the novel’s timeline, someone is stalking the streets of Toronto, plucking people off the streets seemingly at random, and, as would be expected in a literary thriller, there are passing similarities to the working methods of said killer and Angela’s story of the Sandman.
However, when Angela suddenly is incapacitated, Patrick decides to steal her story as his own and writes a smashingly successful debut novel based on the pilfered material. Of course, this doesn’t make someone all that happy and suddenly Patrick’s son becomes a target for revenge.
Pyper can be a strong writer, and it’s surprising that his latest book could be a bit of a letdown. His previous novel, Lost Girls (1999), is perhaps one of the finest literary thrillers ever written in Canada—it’s a compulsively readable book that is hard to put aside. Lost Girls not only won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel in the Canadian mystery field, but was optioned for a movie that has yet to be made. (It would be a fine film.)
Here, however, Pyper has bitten off a bit more than he can chew stylistically, as the novel lazily moves between the near-present day (2007) and the recent past (2003) in flashback form. It is perhaps meant to be an unsettling effect, making the reader feel off-kilter and leading to a tone of paranoia and dread, but it instead comes off as being amateurish. The type of book, in fact, one might found read in a writing class.
For a book that is more or less about the act of writing, Pyper also makes a few and clumsy unforgivable errors in explaining how newspaper stories are written when dealing with the mechanics of publishing a column about TV. This is odd for a novel that goes to great length to discredit the newspaper business and its adherence to following the lives of the rich and famous. When his main character is called out in his Managing Editor’s office at a major newspaper for writing a headline that undermines a literary event, did Pyper not realize that copy editors are responsible for penning most headlines? (At least, that would be this writer’s humble experience in the major leagues.)
Pyper also includes a newspaper story in his narrative involving a number of fatalities in a car wreck, where the police put out a call for help in establishing next-of-kin information. I can say that this pretty much never happens in real life; the police in Canada tend to contact the next-of-kin first, before announcing the identities of the deceased in a motor vehicle accident, so that the next-of-kin can decide whether they want their loved one’s identities published in the first place. These niggling things may seem like minute attention to detail, but sometimes the small things can really add up—and undermine—a book.
Angela’s story, which is presented in alternating chapters in the book’s first third, is additionally clumsy and novice-like. Maybe this is the point: that Pyper is illustrating the kind of bad writing that goes on in writing circles, but the Sandman story hardly comes across as one so compelling that another writer would later claim it as his own. This is ultimately where the book falls a little flat. The thrills of the Sandman story simply don’t add up to much at all, and the Sandman is such an unknown and shadowy figure through most of the book that it’s tough to hook and keep your interest.
In fact, the novel’s most memorable passages deal with the art of writing and the attendant fame that comes with a wildly successful first work, which, again, are mostly found in the first half. Like The Long Goodbye before it, the point of the exercise is not in the whodunit, but in answering the universal question of why people bother to write at all. Especially in an age, as Pyper points out, that not many people are willing to read, but almost everyone and their dog is compelled to be a writer.
But let’s talk a bit about the whodunit for a moment. The latter half of The Killing Circle steps aside of its writerly musings and becomes a rather half-baked thriller. Seemingly every cliché in the book is thrown at the reader—from a false arrest to a protagonist who grabs a pair of scissors to confront an apparition in his own home. Even the identity of the Sandman is a bit easy to spot, though Pyper throws in a bit of a twist for good measure. The ending is a bit of a disappointment, though.
In short, The Killing Circle comes off as little more than paint-by-numbers Chandler. I’d heartedly recommend The Long Goodbye to anyone, but The Killing Circle doesn’t really reach the profundities that made Chandler’s work so dark and mysterious. You see, The Killing Circle might be mildly entertaining, but doesn’t have the guts to offer up something truly compelling: a twisted murder mystery about the real nature of writing and why we do it. In comparison, The Long Goodbye begs to be re-read on an almost annual occasion.
The Killing Circle is a mere trifle, a book about fears brought to real life by the art of writing, a message that is almost forgotten soon after one puts the book down. It’s a shame. Pyper is obviously writing what he knows. It might be better in the future if he penned a story about the dark and unknown aspects of human nature. In other words, Pyper should try to bring us another Lost Girls, a book that is more enjoyable and engaging than what he has to offer this time.