June 03, 2009

Thought You Were Dead

by Terry Griggs


217 pages
ISBN 978 1 897231 53 1
Thought You Were Dead is not noir. Beyond the name of a secondary character’s cat, and a keyboard full of existential notes, the novel is much closer to a post-modern A.A. Milne party mix than anything resembling, say, James Elroy’s blood poetry. Author Terry Griggs’ firepower with allusion, illusion and creative word play so joyfully overshadows plot and homogenizes characterization that the book’s failure to hit the mark as satisfactory crime fiction may hardly be noticed.

Thought You Were Dead is farce, in the style of Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, using some familiar crime fiction conventions to send up Ontario’s literary community, a murderously competitive economic suburb where talent vastly exceeds opportunity. First to go is a literary critic. Who reads literary criticism? Only that tiny smattering of people who claim to be least influenced by it: authors such as Athena Havelock, who is herself “known for her philosophical and linguistically challenging works, and consequently was not much in demand.”

To glom her daily bread, Havelock (who not coincidentally has the same initials as a well-known master of suspense) writes popular fiction, laboring “efficiently and tirelessly in the cultural service industry, supplying enough material to satisfy vast vermin-composters full of bookworms.” Defying experience, she earns enough to hire slacker grocery clerk Chellis Beith to research the arcane minutiae of her literary thrillers and mysteries.

Chellis is the yarn’s detective/protagonist. That it isn’t until about a third of the way into the novel that he does anything resembling research or detection into the death of someone nobody gives a damn about, matters not a whit. However, selecting a page at random reliably leads to booty such as this encounter between Chellis and a traffic cop:
“You in a hurry?”
“Funeral. I’m late.”
“Uh-huh. What’s wrong with your head?”
Interesting. Here was a question Elaine [Chellis’ unrequited love interest] herself had often posed, and for once he had an answer. He touched one of his ailing, bandaged temples. “I have complexion issues.”
“I see. I have quota issues. You were going one kilometer over the speed limit.”

This stuff is so abundant it overwhelms. Well, throw enough literary wit against the wall and some of it’s bound into schtick. Schtick is good. When it comes to schtick, Robertson Davies is and was one hundred per cent delicious, slow-smoked ham. Terry Griggs makes for a mean slice of Canadian back-bacon herself.

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Thought You Were Dead


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