Malcolm’s Wine by Hugh Gilmore

Read: 22 August, 2014

A series of coincidences bind together a petty criminal and two bookshop workers. In the course of an evening, Brian’s friend is murdered and a bottle of wine – bought for his now-deceased son – has been stolen.

I received this book from the author via his wife – a friend of my mother’s who stitched together a beautiful baby blanket for my son. An odd connection given the theme of the book, but I suspect it had more to do with my mother’s need to tell everyone she meets that her daughter is “into books.”

The plot of Malcolm’s Wine hinges on an incestuously small cast of characters. If something happens anywhere in Ann Arbor (and surrounding area), it seems that at least two of our three characters will be involved. While the story was still being set up, it was rather too much of a stretch and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep reading.

Once the stage was set, however, it was no longer an issue. The characters behaved predictably and with consistent rationale as the plot played itself out. This is where the many loops and ties between the characters added to my enjoyment of the book, providing a measure of absurdist humour.

There are two really bad characters in the book, Klaus and Claudell (I’m guessing the naming was intentional). We don’t really see inside Claudell’s head, but we do see in Klaus’s, and the vision of the psychopath was – I found – very well done. He is disconnected from reality, but in a way that has internal logic. He was simultaneously pathetic and believable (though pathetic with a gun, which is absolutely terrifying – particularly when read so soon after the Isla Vista killings). Both Claudell and Klaus reminded me of bullies – unpredictable, riding a high or a delusion that gives their victims no way out. It made their scenes rather difficult to read through, though I appreciate the realism of their handling (not to mention their ends).

Unfortunately, I think the book would have benefited a great deal from a having had a strong editor. The narrative is a little rough around the edges – female characters, in particular, are a little cardboard and there’s some cringe-y assumptions of sexual dimorphism, particularly earlier on, that deserved some red pen striking – but the good ideas and reader handling shine through. My edition also suffered from a number of unfortunate typos, including one right on the back cover. There are enough of them to be noticed, though they don’t ruin the book.

Overall, I found it a very interesting read – a one-off mystery with believable characters that made me care about the outcome.

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