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by Benjamin Constable
Gallery, June 2013
337 pages
ISBN: 1451667264

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Let us consider, for the nonce, that Benjamin Constable got the femme fatale bad, and I mean real bad. His femme fatale is not Ishtar. Sex is not on her mind, and, in fact, she has been targeted by sexual predators in the past, so she is unable to initiate or feel great warmth for her human contacts. She’s not especially pretty, this icon or reality, take your pick; she is no 1940s vamp, although she does chain-smoke (can archetypes chain-smoke?)

Constable’s femme fatale takes fatale to a whole ‘nother level by offing herself, leaving Benjamin-the-character to mourn, as, in fact we humans do our actual losses. Benjamin, good early-21st century Realist character that he is, like his human counterparts, seeks answers for death, for loss, for why we love, for what love is; and this group of questions is actually the real mystery (epistemological question) in this mystery (genre of novel). Constable’s femme fatale keeps him on his toes by planting clues which lead him from Paris, France (where the novel opens) to New York City, then back to Paris. In each clue, the mysterious feminine describes in quite a bit of detail how she murdered someone. Some victims are entirely complicit in their own murder; some are surprised by death’s appearance, as if they could never understand that death might have been meant for them. Did I mention that Constable’s dead friend is Japanese-American, and that her nickname is “Butterfly”?

One by one, Benjamin receives clues via e-mail, whose instructions lead him to Paris and New York landmarks, beloved places, used and lived-in storied spaces, where he feels compelled to dig with a stainless steel ballpoint pen and unearth manuscripts wrapped in brown paper. The femme’s e-mail hints, sent by her lawyer, are preserved in the virtual medium as electrons, reminding us that human thought takes the form of matter and energy, which is never created nor destroyed. Later, if we, too, have been lured by these words (are words feminine?), we realize that printed words, too, achieve an afterlife, when they are translated to memory and culture, Benjamin’s, ours, the Gilgamish, the Eve, the Belle Dame sans Merci, the Vamp.

Dear reader, Constable’s book is fascinating and frustrating. If, perhaps, you believe that I am being far too literary, consider that, as the character, Constable, returns to Paris, he takes up entertaining himself with Dante’s Inferno, explores the pitch black abandoned tunnels beneath the streets of Paris, gets lost, burns pages of the Inferno to light his way, and he meets his lost lady. As they find their way out from beneath the ground, as we are seduced into trying to find redemption or catharsis, Constable looks back at her, he cannot help it; and she, Tomomi Ishikawa (which translates “Beautiful Friend”), dies, another Eurydice killed by the artist who is singing her.

All who have courted an art are complicit in their abuse of her. The human maker tries all wiles to seduce, to draw out the beautiful one and to trap her on a page but she escapes, dies, returns, exists forever in some dark underground of us, sings and calls to human hearts and wrecks us on the rocks of our attempts.

§ Cathy Downs, Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, is a longtime devotee of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, June 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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