Author Chris McGinley takes a close look at new mystery novel “An Honest Living” by Dwyer Murphy.
There’s a passage in Dwyer Murphy’s fine new book, An Honest Living (Viking, 2022) in which the main character talks with a woman who calls him late at night. It’s someone he knows—a love interest, in fact—but there’s a sense of mystery about her, about everything she does, her choice of words, the way she takes a drink, her laugh even:
Another laugh, this one a little deeper, like it was rumbling down the telephone lines from wherever she was calling. It was easy to forget that all of New York was connected in physical ways. Gas lines, telephones, power, cable, sewage. A dozen different utilities crawling under the streets. I didn’t know where she was. At her apartment or maybe a brownstone or a restaurant with a phone booth and an owner sitting at the bar watching her, thinking about her and whether she was going to go home or hang around all night, keeping him from locking up.
Like so many clever passages in the novel, this brief scene suggests more than it does on the surface. Murphy seems interested in the many ways his mid-2000s New Yorkers are connected to one another, quite literally on the one hand with wires and utility lines, but also in how people are linked by their understanding of the city, of the roles people play there, like the impatient restauranteur we all know. Indeed, the book explores city consciousness as much as it does its characters’ motivations. The New York of the era, before it was entirely lost to developers and hyper-gentrification, is in fact a character in this novel, one that figures crucially.
Murphy seems interested in the many ways his mid-2000s New Yorkers are connected to one another…
Even so, for all of the connectivity the passage suggests, for all of the main character’s intimacy with the city and its denizens, the book is equally interested in what we don’t know about one another, in the mysteries and secrets we possess, and perhaps about the inability to truly know someone.
It’s typical of the narrative that the main character remains in the dark about several things here. Like, why in the hell is she calling so late? where is she? what’s she doing? and who’s she with? And thus Murphy’s postmodern but highly readable story manages to bring readers into a specific time and place—the Manhattan and Brooklyn of the mid-2000s—in such a way as to give life to the city as much as the people, and to tell us something about both the thrill of living there, and the existential (?) quandaries that necessarily ensnare these urbanites at the same time.
Here’s the skinny in this excellent mystery novel. A nameless lawyer leaves a big firm where he feels alienated from the life he seeks to live and goes into private practice where he takes all sorts of cases involving colorful characters, several of whom appear in the story. A woman contracts him to do some investigative and legal work. She suspects her estranged husband has stolen some rare books from her—in fact, they are nineteenth century “true crime” manuscripts, rare stuff.
But as it turns out, the woman isn’t who she says she is, and the lawyer gets into hot water when the real wife, a celebrated novelist, comes along soon after. With her help, and the aid of some of the colorful characters I noted above–including a gentleman rogue who deals in stolen goods and dreams his boyfriend is out to kill him, a Venezuelan poet with an uncanny knack for investigation, a sexy insurance investigator who magically acquires sensitive documents, and a few different personalities in the odd world of the antiquarian book trade—the lawyer dives back into the case.
First and foremost, he wants to find out who’s deceived him, but the case begins to take over his life beyond just this. To wit, he gets romantically involved with the real wife, whose father, too, is somehow bound up in the caper of the stolen books. Then the husband is reported dead (but is he?) and the wife wants that solved. If it sounds a little like Roman Polanski’s Chinatownit’s because it is like that. Our lawyer, and some of the others, expressly reference the similarities, and wonder idly how much the real case will resemble the film in the end.
And that’s another great aspect of An Honest Living. There are funny, clever, and genuinely important references to notable works of literature and film throughout, a feature that supports the plot and adds a bit of clever novelty. It would be easy to bungle this, to come off as pretentious, as self-consciously “literary.” But Murphy manages it all so deftly that the material always seems to please, like a puzzle. Sometimes the referenced materials link to the narrative in a thematic manner; At other times, they serve as background elements, creating connections with the characters and the development of the case.
Of course, it must be noted that An Honest Living is a mystery, and our lawyer is its detective. He tracks leads, interviews players, breaches doors, and generally steps on toes. He’s a true gumshoe, just more mild-mannered than those we’re so accustomed to seeing in the genre. He’s likable, too, and we root for him. So, if you’re interested in a smart mystery, in a page-turner of a book that’s “meta” in a good way, you won’t do wrong to pick up Dwyer Murphy’s An Honest Living.
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