Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
By Daniel Taylor
Wipf and Stock. Pp. 206. $24
Review by Colin P. Cahoon
Daniel Taylor’s novel, about a washed-out, middle-aged failure pressed into service as a private detective, pulled me in with a Herman Melville opening and kept me engaged with Dickens-like banter. The hapless protagonist, Jon Mote, stumbles through life and the mystery of the brutal death of his former academic mentor (Dr. Pratt) like Oscar the slob from The Odd Couple but played by a neurotic Woody Allen.
“I’m actually nothing official, almost officially nothing,” Jon tells us apologetically. His Felix and sole friend in the world is his slow-witted and fastidious sister Judy. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Jon lives with Judy on a boat, but symbolic of his dead-end life it’s a dilapidated houseboat, unseaworthy and liable to be condemned if ever visited by the authorities.
The story opens with Dr. Pratt’s attractive widow hiring the reluctant Mote to find her husband’s murderer, a mystery that has eluded the police for six months. Jon knows he’s pathetically unqualified for the job, but Mrs. Pratt thinks otherwise, and he desperately needs the money.
Along the way we learn about the bankrupt state of American academia and explore dark theological questions through the prism of a man long in need of salvation. The deeper Jon probes into Dr. Pratt’s death, the deeper the mystery becomes and the further Jon slips into his own darkness. Jon and Judy, it turns out, share a dark secret that each struggles to cope with in diametrically opposite ways.
Jon has to sort through several suspects with disparate motives to kill Dr. Pratt, such as the angry graduate who confronts her former professor the night before he dies. As a black woman she is furious at Dr. Pratt’s practice of deconstructing literature.
“If words are such weak and self-destructing things, then there is no truth, and if no truth, there is only power, and we, of all people, know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of power,” she says.
Another is the displaced rival professor left behind by the times. As Jon describes, “the invitations to speak at conferences dried up, the prestigious journals were politely uninterested in his articles, his dog no longer ran to the door when he came home.”
Then there’s the stunning young graduate student, whose looks alone rattle the inept sleuth. “Beautiful women make me uncomfortable. Okay, even inanimate objects sometimes make me feel uncomfortable, but it’s worse with beautiful women.” Eventually the guilty party emerges, an antihero reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s most despised antagonists.
The intimate journey with the severely flawed but at times brilliantly perceptive Jon Mote is fascinating and thought-provoking. As the book races toward its conclusion I found myself pulling for this underdog and his sidekick sister Judy, who always seems to say the most inappropriate things at the most appropriate times. Taylor’s writing is engaging and occasionally hilarious, which provides needed comic relief from the dark subject matter that unfolds. He sprinkles the book with references to classics such as Moby-Dick and Great Expectations, and I suspect Melville and Dickens would approve.
If forced to find flaws with this outstanding work, I would note that at times Jon, who narrates in the first person, tells us what other characters are thinking instead of letting their words and actions lead the reader to the same conclusion. I also often found myself frustrated with Jon’s omnipresent self-loathing, but after learning his full story I forgave him. You will forgive him too by the time you finish the last satisfying words of this well written and engrossing mystery.
Colin P. Cahoon is the author of The Man with the Black Box, a work of historical fiction.