Lee Irby's latest book deserves a lot more attention than it's getting. Irby's Unreliable tells the story of a murder from a murderer's point of view — or does it?
It's hard to tell. The author's writing produces a cagey, charming narrator — but readers don't know whether or not they can trust him.
In fiction writing, the purity of the relationship between reader and narrator is sacrosanct: Writers should never break the reader's trust in the narrator. And writers have fun playing with this, especially of late, when the unreliable narrator has fallen into fashion, perhaps in part due to Gone Girl's popularity.
Irby's book isn't a contemporary crime novel, though — not even a little bit. It's actual Literature, the kind that should have a capital "L" that also manages to be witty, engaging and utterly engrossing. In it, in Irby's own words, he's challenging "the genre — the Gone Girl type unreliable mystery, the unreliable narrator as a device."
Irby says the explosion of unreliable narrator-based stories have strayed from those created by the master of the device: Edgar Allen Poe.
"The whole book is taken directly from Poe's last visit to Richmond, where he ran into his rich ex-girlfriend who had tons of money and maybe could have saved him from his ruin — but it didn't work out," Irby says, adding that while he was suffering a bout of "self-pity" about his writing career, he revisited Poe and realized he wrote compelling unreliable narrators.
"What's missing from the unreliable narrators of the most recent vintage," Irby says, "is psychological depth. They're plot-driven, but at the expense of psychological insight. Why did she [Gone Girl's Amy Dunne] go to such lengths to disguise her disappearance?"
Also, these modern-day unreliable narrators have it a little too together.
"Poe narrators were always kind of barely functioning," he says. "These seem to be toying with the reader on purpose, and I wanted to take it back to the Poe angle."
Unreliable's Edwin Stith is a fun, seductive character. He also may or may not be a murderer. He's a lot of things: A college professor, impotent, in love with one of his students, obsessed with many things that shouldn't matter — his mother's future stepchildren, a high-school crush, his ex-wife... and his head is a mess. If he's a murderer, he's not the murderer of the James Patterson ilk (early Patterson, before the books grew formulaic) — the tidy unemotional killer. If he's a murderer, he's not the "crime of passion" type, either.
"I also feel like there hasn't been a literary version of the unreliable narrator; I can't believe no one has tried to do this before. No one's tried to take the unreliable narrator and make that element a part of the character's psychological reality, to take that to the meta level of why would this narrator be unreliable."
Make no mistake: Stith's not toying with you, but Irby is, and with great skill. Quite honestly, I bought Irby's book at an Oxford Exchange event because he said charming things about my own writing, not because I would have picked it up otherwise. While I enjoy crime novels enough, publishers send us heaps of books to review, and my "free" reading time is precious. Crime novels don't make the cut unless they have a Florida setting. But, as I've mentioned, this isn't really a crime novel. It's an homage to Poe, yes, but also a psychological character sketch that takes place on an almost-prophetic canvas — because it's also a statement on confederate monuments.
Sorta-spoiler-but-not-really-alert: A Robert E. Lee statue gets blown up in Unreliable. Irby started work on the book in 2014, well before the AME shooting in 2015 and ensuing controversy over the Confederate Navy Jack flag flown over the South Carolina capitol building, but the statue of Robert E. Lee was already part of the story.
"How many traces of Confederacy are everywhere in the South, especially in Richmond, where I grew up?" he says. "Richmond had a vibrant punk rock scene, right by the statue. One of the ironies is that you have Black Flag playing within 100 yards of the statue. White flight created this, and punk rockers moved in. Right by the statue was this other universe at odds with white flight and segregated schools. Every southern city, really, is pretty liberal, but it's surrounded by the suburbs and the ex-burbs."
Unreliable plays with this, as a secondary plotline, but Irby says he doesn't feel great about his fiction edging close to the Charlottesville reality.
"I thought for sure a month ago that the Lee statue would get blown up. I think it will get removed; I didn't think they would do it willingly, but I think they'll have to."
Another not-so-spoiler-alert: Stith doesn't blow up the statue. But Irby was "trying to blow up the mystery thriller genre with an unreliable narrator," he says (his original title was Mystery/Thriller). "That's what Edwin does in the first chapter; he's mocking the whole concept of the unreliable narrator."
The book, in all, will require a few reads to unpack, but the unpacking is part of the fun of Unreliable.
Irby had fun writing it, too.
"I could not wait to write it, could not wait to work on it, thought about it all the time," he says. "That doesn't always happen."
Contact Cathy Salustri.