Monday, October 10, 2011

A Review of Paul Theroux's Murder in Mount Holly

Early this December, The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, will publish the "crime caper" Murder in Mount Holly by best-selling author Paul Theroux. Before you get too excited, like I did, you should be aware of the following:
  • It's not new. Murder in Mount Holly, one of Paul Theroux's earliest works, was originally published in the U.K. in 1969, and was republished in the U.K. in 1998 in Theroux's The Collected Short Novels. Although it has not been released in the U.S. until now, it's more than 40 years old.
  • It really isn't a mystery or even crime fiction. Rather, Murder in Mount Holly is a surreal, cartoonish satire of Vietnam-era United States. Three senior citizens (an obese widow who sacrifices her son's future for bonbons and television, a bigoted "veteran of three wars" who works at a war-toy factory, and a kindergarten teacher who rents out rooms to support her jealous lover, the school janitor) decide to knock over the Mount Holly Trust Company because it's full of communist "You-Know-Whos." In the epilogue, the narrator compares these three characters to the figures in Archibald MacNeal Willard's famous painting, The Spirit of '76.

  • At less than 180 pages, it feels closer to a novella than a full novel. And this shortcoming is not just in length. In the American Writers entry on Paul Theroux from 2001, Liesel Litzenburger says Murder in Mount Holly is "what reviewers delicately referred to as 'slight' or lacking in fully realized intent."

  • Murder in Mount Holly is not Theroux at his best. Litzenburger argues in American Writers, "Within the body of Theroux's writings, it registers as a minor misstep." More recently, Publishers Weekly judged the forthcoming Mysterious Press edition of Murder in Mount Holly to be a "subpar effort for the prolific Theroux."
Still, Murder in Mount Holly certainly is worth reading. Don't the times seem ripe for it, with our Tea Partiers and Wall Street Occupiers and the ongoing tragedies of Iraq and Afghanistan? And maybe this really is a murder mystery, a we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us crime caper in which we're all perpetrators and victims?

If that doesn't convince you, consider the following observation Theroux made in one of his best-known books, The Great Railway Bazaar: "It is possible at a distance to maintain the fiction of former happiness -- childhood or school days -- and then you return to an early setting and the years fall away and you see how bitterly unhappy you were."

If you look at it from that perspective, of returning to an earlier setting to consider our former, current and future selves, Murder in Mount Holly is an important milestone in Theroux's "body of writings," as well as in American literature.

~Michael May, Adult Services

Murder in Mount Holly by Paul Theroux will be published on December 6, 2011 by The Mysterious Press.

This review was based on the digital galley obtained from Grove/Atlantic, Inc. through

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