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A Gift for the Little Master

Reviewed: August 16, 2002
By: John McLachlan Gray
Publisher: Seal Books
410 Pages, $9.99

Iím not sure what I was expecting from John MacLachlan Grayís first novel. Gray is still probably best known for those musical commentaries he used to do on the Journal, though he is the author of a number of successful plays (Billy Bishop Goes to War) and writes a regular column on cultural politics for the Globe and Mail.

I guess I should have expected social commentary, seasoned with satire. Wrapping all this around the uncovering of a serial killer in Vancouver, Gray has spun a quirky tale of murder, mystery and mayhem.

The story begins with Delores Gunn, nightcrawler (non-union television reporter), and her crew of two, attempting to entrap a john with a fake hooker come-on. Delores has looks and some sense of what a story ought to be, but the burning desire to parlay some air time into a steadier job has her working with the bottom-feeders.

The sting comes off badly and the spin-off from that is that we meet another viewpoint character, a hard-nosed, tough guy detective name Turner. He is a bit of a rogue, a Dirty Harry kind of fellow, actually quite honourable, but given to outbursts of politically incorrect physicality.

Watching Delores, attracted by her on-screen persona, is Eli, a bicycle courier who seems to want people to think he is dumber than he really is. He hangs out with a character named Sponigal, who has a past he wonít discuss. He seems determined to kick-start Eliís intelligence.

These are the good guys, all of which come across as damaged goods in need of repair, or at least a wake-up call. You get intrigued by them, but itís hard to like any of them.

Tying them together is the plot which involves the serial killer, an unidentified man who appears, every few chapters, having a continuing dialogue about the works of Nietzsche. Eventually we realize that the two are discussing the murders, which appear to be random acts chosen for the purpose of illustrating philosophical principles.

No one picks up on this, of course. Itís way too obscure for normal people. Besides, one of the early victims is the wife of a former jock broadcaster with a roving eye and the media decide very early on that he would be the best suspect. In fact, they have him covered like O.J. Simpson before he even realizes that his wife is dead, trailing him all the way home in a convoy and staking out his property like a film set. heís tried and convicted

Itís a disgusting example of media manipulation and echoes some of the ideas that Gray has editorialized about in his columns over the years.

Of course, itís Delores who begins to realize that something is wrong, though she is rendered temporarily impotent by emergence of her very first heavy breathing telephone stalker and has to deal with that first.

Itís Turner who confirms her intuition with his own reading of the evidence. Lots of fingers may be pointing at the hapless ex-football player, but he canít possibly have carried out all the mayhem thatís been going on, and once Turner connects the dots on some seemingly unrelated incidents, he knows he has to look somewhere else.

And Eli? Eli finds himself on the run from a stalker in a 4-Runner who seems to be connected to the whole mess. He takes his story to Delores, forging the beginning of the connection which causes him to be around for the end of the story.

Iím not quite convinced by this novel. I picked it up because I heard Gray talk about what he was trying to do with it, but Iím not sure the execution matches his intent. Some of the situations seem to be set-ups for the clever dialogue between his pairs of characters. Some of the plot developments seem convenient in the way that movies and television shows often are, but novels shouldnít appear to be.

Finally, the ending comes upon us so quickly that I was left unsatisfied, with the brief romantic coda at the end failing to assuage that feeling. I guess I didnít feel that Iíd been given quite enough to work with. Itís about the right length, but there are parts of the book that didnít need to be there and some other parts that could have stood a bit more development.

Oddly, all the way through it I was reminded of other peopleís work. The tone, though not the content, is reminiscent of books by science fiction writers Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) and William Gibson (Virtual Light), both of whom practice a kind of punk-noir style that is part Raymond Chandler and part Tom Wolfe. Iím not sure it works here. There might be too much irony for a murder thriller. Itís Grayís first novel, though, and I would be more than willing to take him up on another one sometime.

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