Thomas Dunne Books, 2008, 326 pages
Amy Gallup is gifted, perhaps too gifted for her own good. Published at only twenty-two, she peaked early and found critical but not commercial success. Now her former life is gone, along with her writing career and beloved husband. A reclusive widow, her sole companion a dour, flatulent basset hound who barely tolerates her, her daily mantra Kill Me Now, she is a loner afraid to be alone. Her only bright spot each week is the writing class that she teaches at the university extension.
This semester's class is full of the usual suspects: the doctor who wants to be the next Robin Cook, the overly enthusiastic repeat student, the slacker, the unassuming student with the hidden talent, the prankster, the know-it-all... Amy's seen them all before. But something is very different about this class---and the clues begin with a scary phone call in the middle of the night and obscene threats instead of peer evaluations on student writing assignments. Amy soon realizes that one of her students is a very sick puppy, and when a member of the class is murdered, everyone becomes a suspect. As she dissects each student's writing for clues, Amy must enlist the help of everyone in her class, including the murderer, to find the killer among them.
Suspenseful, extremely witty, brilliantly written, unexpectedly hilarious, and a joy from start to finish, The Writing Class is a one-of-a-kind novel that rivals Jincy Willett's previous masterpieces
I picked up this book because I found the concept amusing: a burned out author who now gets by teaching creative writing extension courses has to solve a murder in her class.
The Writing Class follows the conventions of a "Ten Little Indians"-style murder mystery. We're introduced to an entire class of writer wannabes, and then we spend the book trying, along with the main character, to guess who the killer is. Jincy Willett is funny in a sharp and satirical but humane way, and she has a real gift for characterization. Each of her characters has depths to be unraveled, even the least-mentioned ones, and by the end, like Amy Gallup, the fictional author who one cannot help noticing seems to have a lot in common with Jincy Willett, it's easy to check off reasons why each and every one of them could or could not be the whack job who's escalated from leaving nasty, destructive critiques to murder.
Willett is also just a damn good writer. This isn't a "prosey" book in particular, but the prose is controlled and clever all the way through. It's a pleasure to read a real Writer at work.
But all this was beside the point. What scared Amy was the mere fact of what looked inescapably like recreational malevolence. The poem had been written by an adult, not some teen with an unfinished brain. Whoever wrote the line bootlicker, sycophant, toady intended damage, understood how Carla would feel, how anybody would feel, being called such names. The line was playful, offhand, the poem itself a smug, imperious cat stretch. The writer was having fun. Amy had been comfortable in the same room with someone whose idea of fun this was.
The one conceit Willett allows herself — the "gimme" I'll give her for the sake of the story — is that even after it becomes apparent that someone who they're sharing manuscript critiques with may well be a literal psychopath, the entire writing class insists they love the class so much they want to keep meeting. This works brilliantly in maintaining tension, since at every class (and the inevitable "gotcha" that follows as the person they dub "the Sniper" makes another move) everyone is a suspect and the reader is mentally gathering clues. While I found it a little implausible that a real group of random adults would all be up for continuing, especially after someone dies, I was almost convinced by their enthusiastic immersion in the class and by the frisson of thrill that was surely the real motivation for most of them. ("Holy crap, one of us is a murderer! Isn't this exciting?")
There are moments, throughout The Writing Class, that made me envious of Willett's observational powers and skill at crafting her observations into words. Amy Gallup of course gets the most page space, and as her own life story emerges in dribs and drabs until we have the whole complex human being laid out before us, we also get to see into her mind, which is the mind of a gifted if jaded writer with powerful skills of observation and analysis, making the entire book suspect as an exercise in meta-fiction if we make the mistake that Amy Gallup advises her students not to make, and infer too much about an author from her characters.
Actually, the Sniper's sense of humor frightened Amy more than anything else. The parody of Carla's poem had been witty, the rudeness of Marvy's critique outlandish, and she was still, for some reason, focused on that "youse" in the Sniper's counterfeit email. "Youse" was like a spectral elbow to Amy's ribs. Dangerous, malevolent people should not be amusing. In order to be humorous, you had to have perspective, to be able to stand outside yourself and your own needs and grudges and fears and see yourself for the puny ludicrous creature you really are. How could somebody do that and still imagine himself entitled to harry, to wound, to kill?
On another level, The Writing Class is damned funny for anyone who's dabbled in being a writer, whether you're a published author or an MFA student or just someone who's taken a workshop or two. It's not accurate to say Willett "skewers" the writing industry, as she obviously has a great love for real writing, and like Amy Gallup, she has genuine affection for those who truly want to be writers, however hapless most of them may be. But there's a true-to-life cynicism in Amy's assessment of her students and their work (Willett actually presents excerpts from each student, written in a variety of styles and levels of skill, an accomplished feat of writing in itself) and the sort of people who take writing classes.
"Oh, but it is!" said Dot. "You see, I've taken many, many writing workshops. You'd be surprised how many."
No I wouldn't, thought Amy, although she would be surprised if any of the other classes had actually encouraged critical reading. Dot was ideal prey for the sort of writing guru who praised everybody's use of metaphor whenever a metaphor, however exhausted, was actually used. No doubt Dot had been told more than once that her work was publishable, and Dot, hearing identical assurances given to others, had believed in her heart of hearts that she was the only one not being patronized. There was a local industry devoted to Dots: weekend writing conferences, during which the Dots could pay extra to have a real-live literary agent actually read one of their paragraphs; expensive weeklong retreats in Anza-Borrego or Julian or Ensenada, where the Dots could locate their inner voices; and at least three annual fiction-writing contests which the Dots could enter at will, for a hefty fee. Amy was willing to bet that in Dot's living room an entire wall was devoted to framed literary awards, including Third Runner-Up Best Unpublished Romance Manuscript.
Purely as a murder mystery, The Writing Class also worked well for me. I confess: I didn't guess the murderer. I thought I knew who it was by the end of the book, but I was wrong. I was a little worried that Willett would pull some gimmick out of her ass like some mystery writers do, but no, when the culprit was revealed, everything made sense, and I skimmed back over the incidents involving each suspect and agreed that it fit. (Though I still think my guess was reasonable too.)
I'd never heard of Jincy Willett before I read this book, and now I want to seek out her other books. It was an unexpected surprise, and gets my highest recommendation, especially if you are a would-be writer. I want to take a writing workshop by Amy Gallup! Without the murders, hopefully.
Verdict: I loved this book! I didn't really expect to, but the notion is fresh and funny, it's entirely self-contained (I do not foresee a series of cozies starring a mystery-solving creative writing teacher), and best of all, it's written with the skilled prose, wit, and multi-layered, surprising characters of a gifted literary writer. The Writing Class is high quality lit-fic disguised as a high-concept genre murder mystery.
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