Dear reader, when you go on a road trip, do you stop only for food, gas and bathroom breaks? Or do you embrace detours to local oddities, historical sites and scenic overlooks?
Your answer will likely inform whether you’ll enjoy MSNBC news producer Dann McDorman’s unusual debut mystery, West Heart Kill. Will you deem it an exercise in delayed gratification with a side of lectures? Or a refreshing—nay, daring—metafictional take on the murder mystery?
West Heart Kill is definitely ambitious and absolutely entertaining. The year is 1976, the place is the private West Heart hunting club in upstate New York, and the detective is private investigator Adam McAnnis, there for a visit with his friend James Blake. The Blakes and the club’s other member families, all beneficiaries of generational wealth, are gathering to celebrate the Fourth of July. There shall be fine dining, hunting, swimming and a smattering of adultery.
But really, McAnnis is there at the behest of a mysterious client who’s hired the detective to ferret out conspiracies against him. West Heart has conflict aplenty: the aforementioned adultery, a proposal to sell the club and painfully unresolved resentments. McAnnis observes it all and, when a woman is found dead, a dark and stormy night serves as dramatic backdrop to multiple interrogations and indignant protestations, additional deaths and scandalous revelations.
McDorman does an excellent job of peeling the onion-like layers of his detective tale, carefully doling out surprises as the pages turn. It’s his penchant for digression that might prove controversial: He repeatedly pauses his story to contemplate literary conventions, sample different formats and interrogate the work of Sophocles, Agatha Christie, et al. He also playfully points out when he’s employing genre tropes like “the Great Detective Pondering the Case.”
As the author notes while wearing his second-person-narrator hat (he dons first- and third-person chapeaux, too), “The mystery, virtually since its inception, has invited rule-making and rule-breaking.” McDorman embraces that notion in a way that I, dear reader, found archly amusing. The journey, while meandering and sometimes confounding, had its own pleasing element of suspense: Wherever will he detour to next? West Heart Kill is an off-roading mashup of fact and fiction that will have readers asking “Are we there yet?” with varying degrees of enthusiasm and buy-in—and thus is sure to spawn exceptionally lively book club debates.