Thursday, October 4, 2007

Jeffrey Miller's "Murder on the Rebound"

Jeffrey Miller’s work has been described as "Mark Twain meets Rumpole of the Bailey." In his many years as a columnist for The Lawyers Weekly, he has chronicled the tragicomic intersection of law and the human condition. His non-fiction books include Where There’s Life, There’s Lawsuits and Ardor in the Court!

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to Murder on the Rebound, the latest novel in the successful Amicus Curiae mystery series, and reported the following:
Some wag called Hamlet a bunch of famous quotations strung together, which is the impression you would get from reading just a page a third of the way through the play. The quality of any fiction is in its narrative whole: if it doesn’t work organically it doesn’t work at all. But you can often get a sense in a page or two about whether you’ll connect with the narrative voice, and whether the author is a writer – whether he works with language in a craftsmanlike way.

Page 99 of Murder on the Rebound concerns a discussion about Francis Bacon (the Elizabethan philosopher, essayist, and lawyer) among attendees at a memorial service. It gives you some feeling for the book’s substance, in that Bacon’s downfall – his ultimately disastrous attempt to combine the intellectual life with getting great wealth – figures largely in both the main theme, regarding truth and how we bend it to our ends, and in the plot.

It also suggests the book is a comic novel. But it provides only a limited impression of the novel’s overall tone, and no idea of its sub-themes (e.g., how we make outcasts of the unconventional) and subplots. The page is almost all dialogue, although the sardonic (wise-ass, really) narration is there if you squint:

Josh Peacock, seated next to Skaldpedar, throws the judge an over-the-shoulder glance of disapproval. At the same time, Reg Holdsworth, seated in front of Justice Mariner and ear-wigging as usual, turns to advise, in not much of a whisper at all:

“Apparently Mack had the kid following up an old canard about that – how Bacon didn’t really die at all, you know.”

“Show some respect!” Skaldpedar says, fully viva voce in her public outrage, making half the assemblage jump in their pews and effectively ending the conversation until the reception following, in the student union.

Mind you, when I talk about the series publicly, Amicus the courthouse stray can seem even more rascally than I’d planned for him as feline narrator: I find myself explaining reflexively that there is nothing “cutesy” about the novels, that the cat is there mostly to give deeper narrative color and perspective, like Falstaff in Shakespeare. Page 99 doesn’t reveal this – that I chose such a voice because crime fiction generally has limited narrative range – hard-boiled and tea-and-cakes, and not a lot in between. As I want my novels to be more than mind candy – to have substance beyond a ripping “genre” yarn – I try for narration that stands out while being fun to read (and write).

In the result, some kind people have compared the series to Sarah Caudwell’s very witty novels, and to John Mortimer’s Rumpole books. These are wonderful compliments, particularly as Mortimer’s work has been a source of delight and inspiration. In fact, his writing motto has become my own: Try not to bore yourself and you won’t bore your reader.
Read more about Murder on the Rebound at the publisher's website, and learn more about Jeffrey Miller and his other books at his website.

--Marshal Zeringue