In general, Roper’s observations are at their sharpest when he discusses “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” Humbert Humbert, he points out, studies little Dolores Haze as intensely as Nabokov studied insects. He emphasizes that the writer’s great theme isn’t sex per se, but “amorousness: the disposition to become obsessed, to fetishize a lover.” Calling attention to the “shrill note, wiggling, head thrown back, teeth biting lip,” he daringly wonders if Lolita might have experienced an orgasm while sprawled on Humbert Humbert’s lap. And in a particularly astute summary, he talks of the complicitousness one finds in Nabokov’s books:
“Nabokov was an intimate writer. His reticences, his formal estrangements, his denial of interest in any reality beyond the text all need to be measured against that. Maximum closeness: not the closeness of ostentatious empathy but the closeness of one mind addressing another in the most thrilling terms. He speaks into the ear, sometimes dripping a little poison. He contrives to have a reader identify intimately with a protagonist or narrator, but even that is not enough; the reader receives secret handshakes from the author himself, behind a narrator’s back.”
For King, it is a rich vein that he has mined on more than one occasion. Some of his most enduring works feature writers: Salem’s Lot, It, The Shining, The Dark Half and many more feature writers of either novels or plays. But King’s most famous work about an author is Misery, a truly terrifying look at what happens when a keen fan strays onto the wrong side of obsession. It is commonly read as a metaphor for addiction, but can also be taken at face value as an investigation into the love that fans feel for the writers who have changed their lives.
It is that same part of the vein that King draws from here, in the follow-up to Mr Mercedes, last year’s crime thriller. In that book, retired detective Bill Hodges chased down the mass-murdering psychopath Brady Hartsfield, leaving him in a coma. By the time this sequel begins, Hodges and his associates have formed the titular investigation agency, which eschews criminal cases in favour of mysteries that will never involve the police. It is the thrill of the chase that King wants to capture, rather than the nitty-gritty of crime‑scene dusting.
Operating as a sort of archaeologist, Edwards is able, unlike other diggers of the past, to give his finds a second life. Most readers of his book will finish with a wish-list of previously unfamiliar titles from those he describes so enticingly.
Crime fiction is driven by death. In this superbly compendious and entertaining book, Edwards ensures that dozens of authorial corpses are gloriously reborn.