It is 1987, and a bitterly cold winter night in New Jersey. In a rambling Queen Anne-style house in West Windsor, a man is found dead, battered to death and lying in a pool of his own blood. The corpse is that of a successful but controversial academic from Princeton, Professor Joseph Wieder. For all his erudition and his insights into the human brain – particularly the workings of memory – he is still very dead. The police dutifully stumble around in the snow, interviewing those who knew the dead man, but they fail to find anyone without a decent alibi, let alone a suspect who stood to gain substantially from his death.
Romanian author Eugen Chirovici takes this unsolved crime as the centrepiece of an intriguing and original crime mystery in which he explores the nature of memory and perception from several different viewpoints. Without getting bogged down in faux psychology, Chirovici takes an almost Proustian look at the events of that winter night in 1987, and he even tips his hat to the great man in the final sentence of the book.
We first learn of Wieder’s violent demise in a roundabout way. A literary agent, Peter Katz, is working his way through emails from hopeful authors, and consigning most of them to the trash icon, when his attention is grabbed by a submission from a man called Richard Flynn. Katz prints out the sample chapters of Flynn’s book and sits down to read them. He is hooked. Two hours fly past, and Katz realises that he has a possible best seller in his hands, but he is unsure if the book is a true crime confession, or a novel. So, what did Flynn have to say?
Richard Flynn has worked his way up from a decent but unremarkable upbringing in Brooklyn, and is in his third year studying English at Princeton. His new housemate is a young woman called Laura Baines, and he falls under her spell. She introduces him to Professor Wieder, who is her thesis supervisor. Flynn gets a part time job cataloguing Wieder’s extensive book collection. By this time, he and Laura are bedmates, but he is still wondering about the relationship between Laura and Wieder when the older man is brutally murdered.
At this point, Flynn’s manuscript finishes, and Katz seeks out the author, only to find that he has recently died. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, Katz employs an out-of-work investigative reporter, John Keller, to do the leg work. Keller takes up the narrative at this point but, as he pans the stream, he finds only Fool’s Gold. What he does manage to do, however, is introduce us to the third witness in the saga – a retired cop called Roy Freeman.
There is a very satisfying sense of a torch being handed from one runner to another, and it is during Freeman’s leg of the journey that we find out the truth of what really happened to Joseph Wieder. Or do we? Changing the metaphor, Chirovici tells us that we have been in one of those fairground attractions which involves walking in front of distorting mirrors. He says;
“They’d all been wrong, and seen nothing but their own obsessions through the windows they’d tried to gaze through, which in fact had been mirrors all along.”
This is a skilful and engaging work which is all the more remarkable for being written in English which, despite his many academic achievements, is not the author’s first language. The style is unfussy and direct; Chirovici makes the different participants in the story totally convincing, and the American scene-setting is faultless. In the acknowledgements section at the end of the novel he thanks many different people who, in his words, “enriched the manuscript and made it shine.” I would offer the simple observation that if the stone had not been precious in the first instance, then no amount of polishing would have made it a diamond.
The Book of Mirrors is published by Century, at £12.99 in hardback, and £7.99 for the Kindle. It will be available in January 2017, and you can pre-order here.