Review of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, by Daniel Taylor (Cascade Books, 2014), reviewed by James Prothero
On reading Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, I was prepared for something like a standard mystery. But this book is not standard anything. If I am at all critical of it, that would be why. Daniel Taylor is venturing between the lines here, and this is no Sherlock Holmes sort of tale. But it is this marginal quality that is also the book’s most intriguing aspect.
The characterization is strong, but odd. Jon Mote, the protagonist, is a failed English literature grad student, still hovering around St Paul, Minnesota, taking on odd jobs as a researcher, smarting from his divorce-in-progress, and living with his mentally limited sister, Judy. Judy is far more interesting, being a sort of divine fool, love and faith encased in her diminished mental ability. The book is almost worth reading just to experience Judy.
Jon is not quite an anti-hero, but not quite a hero either. The intensity and relentless drive, even of the quiet, intelligent kind that we usually associate with detectives like Marple, Poirot, or Holmes, is lacking here. He hears voices, which turn out to be demonic. Is he schizophrenic? Is he possessed? The most intriguing thing about this is we’re not sure there’s a difference. He follows the case, but spends as much time trying to deal with his demons—and frankly, the case languishes for pages and pages while Jon Mote self-examines. I would rather he had a relentless quality about him in some form if he is to be a detective. But the fact is that, for large swaths of time, Jon Mote does not care if he catches the killer. As a reader, with no one caring, I was also tempted not to care. Yet, in between wrestling bouts with his demons, Mote eventually does stumble upon the answer to the mystery.
The “stiff”—that is, the dead man—is far more dynamic. Though it is perhaps intended, he far outshines the man chosen to investigate his death. Richard Pratt is, as Hamlet says of Polonius, a “foolish, prating knave,” spouting Deconstruction eloquently with a wink of his eye that makes us sure he is the ultimate con artist. He’s a Jacques Derrida wannabe that pulls it off with dash, flare and adultery. Of course, we expected him to be playing the angle all along. He’s a delicious fictional character, and sadly, there are real people like him in English departments all over America. When Mote digs up Pratt’s past, he digs up dirt not only on the picaresque Pratt, but also on the demons behind Deconstruction itself. In a sense, Deconstruction, with its attendant obsessions with power and pride, is the real killer that Mote tracks down. And his own healing coincides with the airing of this truth.
And that is why I think the book is really about healing and the ultimate victory of truth over clever fog. Jon Mote is a vehicle, but hardly a detective. The real detectives are truth, beauty and goodness themselves. If they are exemplified in any one character, it is not the clever and tormented Jon Mote, but his mentally limited sister, Judy. If there is a triumph at the end, it is hers. So this is a story of spiritual and psychological redemption. It is a story of Deconstruction deconstructing, of the fragility of deception. It is a story about the ultimate weakness of evil and delusion. Though it does lack that Agatha Christie quality we’ve come to expect from most murder mysteries, if you read it as a tale of how the most entangled evils of society can be unraveled and redeemed, you will be quite satisfied with Death Comes for the Deconstructionist.
Dr Jim Prothero is an independent scholar, editor, poet, novelist, watercolor painter, and teacher living behind the "Orange Curtain" in Southern California. He teaches in Santa Ana, California. His novel The Sun is But a Morning Star is out on Amazon.
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