I am the first to admit that I have a bias against choosing mystery novels as the topics of discussion for my library's book group. Because the raison d'etre of mystery novels is to offer up a crime and then lead the reader down the path to its solution, I have always considered most representatives of the genre to be lacking in the sense of ambiguity that provides fodder for some of the best book group discussions. However, my interest was sufficiently piqued by reviews for Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross, that I selected it for the group this past spring. After all, how could I resist a book with jacket notes that describe it as being a "police procedural of the soul?"
The premise of Mr. Peanut is highly original; writer David Peppin has been accused of killing his wife but the team of detectives assigned to work the case includes none other than Dr. Sam Sheppard, the iconic former murder suspect famously exonerated of killing his wife but who, in the parallel universe of Mr. Peanut, is now working as as a homicide detective in New York City. Rounding out this tale of extreme marital disfunction is Sheppard's investigative partner, Ward Hastroll, a man who was happily married until the day his wife decided that she was no longer going to get out of bed. Ross tightly weaves together these three separate tales of marriage gone bad into such a dark fabric that it is almost impossible to summon up much in the way of sympathy for any of the major players, save perhaps the deceased Mrs. Sheppard. Ross also throws in some fascinating insights regarding the filmmaking genius of Alfred Hitchcock and ultimately got me to understand that I was reading the literary equivalent of an Escher drawing - the deeper I went into the story, the less sure I became of what I was actually seeing. There were times when I felt as though I had hit the mother lode of ambiguity.
Although the extreme bleakness of Mr. Peanut made it impossible for me to love this book, at its conclusion I nonetheless felt that I had experienced something that was extremely virtuosic and I was in awe of Ross' ability to create something of such intricate structure. The dilemma I face now is that even though I think a second reading of Mr. Peanut would reveal to me even more aspects of its genius, I just don't love this book enough to want to read it a second time. Not surprisingly, the people in my book group were pretty evenly divided between those who thought highly of the book and those who didn't, making for some pretty good discussion. So, while I will likely not be recommending Mr. Peanut to large numbers of people, there are still a select few who I think might appreciate this particular read.
Around the same time that I was reading Mr Peanut, I was also listening on audiobook to The 500, by Matthew Quirk. The initial premise is extremely weak - the fact that third year Harvard law student Mike Ford allows himself to be intimidated by a collection agency threatening him over the unpaid medical bills of his deceased mother simply defies belief, especially since it took me only about thirty seconds on the internet to verify that adult children are not responsible for their deceased parents' debts unless they are cosigners to the loan. Ironically, it is his personal desire to repay this debt which sets Mike up as a candidate for employment at a law firm that promises big bucks in exchange for doing work that Mike initially doesn't realize will cause him to be morally, ethically and legally compromised. Toss in one rich and beautiful (of course) co-worker love interest, some shady international doings, lots of action and some brutal killings and you basically get the idea. I enjoyed the Washington DC setting and the author did a pretty good job of building suspense in spite of the fact that I sometimes found myself wondering how someone supposedly as smart as Mike could keep making such stupid decisions. These shortcomings were balanced, however, by an extremely cynical point of view regarding the workings of government which I also share. Unfortunately, only a few weeks after having listened to this book, I remember very few of its details regarding either characters or plot. The bottom line is that The 500 is the type of book that makes for a fairly compelling beach read and is also not a bad choice for anyone really into conspiracy theories.