Literary success stories can have strange beginnings. After Eugen Chirovici came to England from his native Romania, it took only three years before his first novel written in English became something of a global publishing sensation. The book was the subject of a bidding war among publishers in twenty-three countries, and even such places as Iceland, which rarely takes a punt on unpublished books, secured the novel before publication in 2017.
The author had written ten crime-related novels in his own country, but his first outing in a new language had critics falling over themselves to praise it, and its occasional missteps are more than subsumed in the sheer accomplishment of the book, with the author (who numbers Hemingway, Steinbeck and Golding among his inspirations) basking in almost unalloyed approval.
The novel begins with a literary agent, Peter Katz, reading a book submission with the title The Book of Mirrors from an author named Richard Flynn, a memoir describing his English studies at Princeton in the 1980s and his closeness to the celebrated Professor Joseph Wieder. Wieder was savagely killed at his home in 1987, with no one ever charged for the crime. Katz starts to believe that Flynn is playing a curious game: his book is essentially a confession to the murder, or at least a way of revealing the identity of the killer. The manuscript is unfinished, and its author is expiring in a hospital, so Katz commissions tenacious investigative journalist John Keller to look into the case. What follows leads both men into darker and darker psychological territory.
The Book of Mirrors is a novel that swiftly acquired a slew of enthusiastic admirers, seduced by its off-kilter ethos – perhaps a result of the author’s Romanian origins filtered through an American milieu. The novel’s premise – a literary agent being seduced by fragments of a book – is both modern in feel and satisfyingly old fashioned in its resonance; think of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. Chirovici adroitly juggles the multiple voices here (the final section is presented via the voice of the ex-policeman who was part of the murder case in the 1980s), and what might initially seem to be a disadvantage – the cool distance at which the author remains from his characters – makes concentration on the forward movement of the narrative itself crucial. Essentially, the novel is a puzzle with the various components presented in intriguing fashion for the reader. Perhaps its central section is less involving than the opening and the revealing finale, but there is no slackening in the pace.
Is the novel a murder mystery or a literary jeu d’esprit? That’s really a matter for dispute between critics – the casual reader will want to know the answer to one simple question: Will the novel keep me comprehensively gripped? The answer to that is definitely yes. And the author’s other recent novel, Bad Blood, is similarly worthy of attention.
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
THE BOOK OF MIRRORS
By E.O. Chirovici
Published by Arrow (2017)
Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.
Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).
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