Regular Crime Fiction Lover readers will recall that The Woman in the Library won Best Indie Novel in our 2022 awards. Now Australian publisher Ultimo Press has released After She Wrote him in the UK, a book that was initially published as Crossing the Lines in 2017. This was the author’s first crime novel to step outside her Rowland Sinclair cosy series and actually preceded The Woman in the Library. If this is confusing, get used to it – After She Wrote Him is a real head-scratcher and you’ll need to pay close attention to keep up.
Let’s start with the basics. In a Melbourne suburb, Madeleine d’Leon is an ex-lawyer and the author of a cosy mystery series wanting to venture outside her comfort zone. She invents Edward McGinnity, a literary novelist who is in love with a married artist and is haunted by the death of his family. Edward is also in the process of writing a new bestseller after the success of his previous novel.
His main protagonist is Madeleine, who writes quirky, whimsical and absurd stories using her characters and as an escape from reality. She is still reeling after a traumatic miscarriage and her mostly absent doctor husband offers little support. Which of the two characters is real, and which is a figment of someone’s imagination?
As with The Woman in the Library, After She Wrote Him is a book within a book, but with a metafictional feedback loop in operation and one or more of the characters within these layers will be implicated in a murder.
Edward goes to a gallery opening for the artist Willow Meriwether, the woman he adores, and while he’s there the unpopular and widely despised critic Geoffrey Vogel takes an unfortunate tumble down the stairs and ends up dead. Edward was seen exchanging words with Vogel beforehand and so becomes a prime suspect. He needs Madeleine’s expertise as a crime writer to find the true culprit, and in exchange Edward becomes a welcome distraction for Madeleine from her loveless marriage.
Crossing the Lines was an appropriate title for this novel – characters not only cross the line between reality and fantasy, but the lines become so blurred that their lives become intertwined. Gentill pulls off this daring literary device with great flair and skill, and the overlapping of characters in both stories adds interest. Leith Henry, for example, appears as both Edward and Madeleine’s literary agent. Hugh sings Bohemian Rhapsody badly at one point, claiming it’s been stuck in his head for days. Later in the Edward storyline, Willow’s agent, Andrew Finlay, hums the same song. This levity, and especially Madeleine’s running commentary on the writing process, add texture to a story that unfolds slowly.
Characters are the main driving force here. Despite promising to be a murder mystery at first, the suspense element runs out of steam and the focus shifts to Madeleine and Edward. Neither is particularly likeable, though. Madeleine is clearly in a vulnerable state, but an ex-lawyer is unlikely to give her husband power of attorney without questioning his intentions. Edward, on the other hand, is the stereotypically attractive, swoon-worthy romantic hero, a literary martyr who suffers for his art and refuses to write or read crime fiction.
The most convincing character is the man who may or may not be the villain in the story, Madeleine’s husband Hugh. This is someone who constantly gaslights his wife, tries to convince her that she’s losing her grip on reality and tells her to stop acting like a “demented Mata Hari.”
Edward describes his own book as follows: “…an exploration of an author’s relationship with her protagonist, an examination of the tenuous line between belief and reality, imagination and self, and what happens when that line is crossed”. I couldn’t have described After She Wrote Him more succinctly myself. How many times the author will be able to successfully employ the metafictional book-within-a-book-within-a-book device is up for debate, but she deftly addresses the friction between literature and genre fiction, as well as the biases in publishing.
Here’s the zinger – you are either going to love or hate After She Wrote Him. As for me, I’m going to balance myself precariously on the fence and opt for a neutral position. You’ll have to read it to choose which side you’re on.
Also see the Hawthorne series by Anthony Horowitz.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars