Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Sarang's Tomorrow Darling

Sarang's latest effort, Tomorrow Darling, has been called "a penetrating examination of the human spirit in the form of an astonishingly good mystery story" (J.M. Coetzee), "at once a love letter to the mystery genre and its high-water-mark" (Michael Ondaatje), and "the book I wish I'd written" (Dan Brown).  It has also been called "warmed-over tripe" (Michiko Kakutani) and "an unappetizing pastiche of Poe, Christie, and Conan Doyle" (Kirkus Reviews).  So it is fair to say that the book is polarizing.  But most would acknowledge that it is a welcome departure from Sarang's previous forays into the mystery genre, in which the culprits turned out to be, respectively, the subprime mortgage market; capitalism, and in particular its emphasis on exchange value instead of use value; and "man's inhumanity to man."  Darling, at least, has a flesh-and-blood murderer (or murderers).

Set in the Cotswolds in the twilight years of the Victorian era, the novel follows amateur detective Cecil Overby-Smythe on a visit to the country estate of the Barrington family.  The patriarch, William, is in poor health, aggravated in recent weeks by news of potentially disastrous financial setbacks in his large industrial concerns in North America.  And his family seems to be disintegrating.  His somewhat erratic daughter Delia has become increasingly radical and politically active (particularly on the question of Home Rule).  His older son Reginald has accepted a quasi-permanent post in India.  His younger son David has married a Methodist.  William has summoned the whole family to the manor for some unspecified purpose, and Overby-Smythe has joined the fractious gathering in the company of his longtime friend, George MacBride, the family solicitor.  (The witty if occasionally bitchy repartee between Overby-Smythe and MacBride is one of the chief pleasures of the book.)

On the morning after he arrives, Overby-Smythe goes for a stroll, braving the sullen rain, in search of mud to eat (he suffers from what today would be diagnosed as pica).  From behind a coppice of willows, Overby-Smythe witnesses a mustachioed man in a brown suit and bowler hat somberly handing a sheaf of papers to a woman in a green dress, whose features Overby-Smythe cannot quite make out.  When a woman's body is found later that day, apparently poisoned, Overby-Smythe feels bound to get to the bottom of the case.  (I won't reveal who the victim is, or whether she is the same woman Overby-Smythe witnessed on his walk, since for a time the reader is kept in the dark on this latter point.  Suffice it to say that a careful reader can piece quite a bit together from the seemingly innocuous details that Sarang weaves into his rich description of the English countryside.)

Darling is refreshingly traditional.  It bears far more resemblance to The Woman in White than it does to Banville's Quirke books (which are published under the pseudonym Benjamin Black and which have recently been turned into a television series starring Gabriel Byrne).  In short, if a literary writer like Sarang or Banville is going to spend time "slumming" in genre fiction, it is an exercise in self-indulgence unless he is willing to commit.  Banville's books barely qualify as mysteries, whereas Darling is delightfully true to the genre, from the opening scene right down through the climax, in which Overby-Smythe, munching on splinters of wood, reveals the identity of the guilty party (or parties) to the rapt audience.

So while the book definitely doesn't transcend the genre, or even much modify its time-honored formulas, it is gratifyingly rich in all of the things that make the genre so irresistible in the first place, and if you can put the book down during its last 50 pages, then you're a better man than I.


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