Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: Teller

Another book review! But one with two caveats up front. Teller: A Novel may be the only murder mystery I've ever read aside from Sherlock Holmes. It's not a genre that normally appeals to me, and I'm a blank slate when it comes to its traditions and tropes.

In addition, the book's author, Frederick Weisel, is a friend and former boss of mine. We get together occasionally to share tall tales of the literary life over lunch. I watched him struggle to write this thing over many, many months. Between that and my ignorance of detective fiction, it's impossible for me to offer an informed, impartial review. Instead, consider this an appreciation of story I was thrilled to read at last.

Charlie Teller is a ghostwriter of best-selling celebrity autobiographies whose excesses destroyed his marriage and career. Now he's moved to the Wine Country of Sonoma County, California, to be near his divorced wife and daughter, accepted a job to write the vanity-project biography of a construction mogul, and made new friends, one of whom quickly turns up dead. Teller is the first on the crime scene. Feeling an obligation to the victim, he starts his own investigation. That's what an autobiographical ghostwriter does, right?--ask questions, probe acquaintances and enemies, and gradually illuminate the mysteries of a life. A tough cop, the victim's femme fatale fiancee, a special forces vet, a paranoid drugged-out rock star, and other characters have their own secrets and agendas. Some want to help Teller; others want him dead.

Teller is a reluctant hero, not particularly strong or capable, but driven by a dogged curiosity. The mystery moves along and builds to a satisfying conclusion, with a fine mix of action and dry wit. Weisel brings a lot of nice texture to Teller's world. He's done his homework on literature, classical music, winemaking. Setting the book in the county Weisel and I both call home gives it a terrific sense of place. I know these restaurants, hotels, backroads and vineyards. Again, he gets the details right (except I've never run into as many rich and famous celebrities as Teller does, but maybe I go to the wrong parties).

Interspersed throughout the book are flashbacks, set in a different typeface, that relate the rise and fall of Charlie Teller's literary career. I'm told that at least one early reader didn't like these chapters at all, arguing that they don't advance the plot or help solve the mystery. I couldn't disagree more. I appreciated learning the arc of Teller's life, from struggling young writer to rising star to the humiliated failure we meet on Page 1. We encounter some terrific characters, learn Teller's strengths and weaknesses as a writer and man, and understand how desperately he needs this job--or something in his life--to work out. For me, the threads elegantly come together. Just as Teller wrote his subjects' life stories, Weisel has written Teller's. I loved the flashbacks, and honestly thought they elevated the entire novel above what could have been a routine murder mystery (noting, as I did above, that I don't really know what's "routine" for this type of story).

Weisel's website has some great background on the book, quotes and excerpts, and links to buy it in the form of either paper or electrons. He also posted a couple of videos, including the one below in which he tells a story about research he did on murder weapons that had my howling when I heard it over lunch:

I can't sum up Teller better than Weisel himself did on his back cover. I found it "a surprising novel about the meaning of memoir and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are." It's a fun, ambitious first novel from an author who I hope will do many more, and next lunch pick up the tab.


Anonymous said...

I just want to read your review

Anonymous said...

I found the review and appreciate the comments. I too found the book very satisfying and appreciated the local setting.