Campus novels are not uncommon; novels about writers even less so. But Michael Collins has here produced an excellent novel, by incorporating a striking crime thriller theme into this self-consciously literary setting.
The title character is a literature professor at Bannockburn College, a once-famous writer whose punk-like attitude helped bring about a decline in his career to the point where a meeting with an old friend who is still a best-selling author drives him to a suicide attempt. While he remains near death, a postgraduate student from the English department discovers a lost novel in his home, published decades ago by a now defunct vanity press and apparently so thoroughly forgotten that it no longer appears on Pendleton's CV. Intrigued, Abi begins to read it, and is impressed by what turns out to be a first person narrative daringly written from the point of view of a child killer. She eventually manages to get Scream published, and it becomes a best-seller as well as restoring Pendleton's literary reputation. But then a few people begin to realise that the crime depicted bears a close resemblance to a real cold case from local area.
Considered as a crime thriller, The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton moves at a glacially slow pace. It will, however, retain the interest of a genre fan because of the idea behind the plot. The extra space is used to include elements from literary fiction, particularly to develop the characterisation of Abi. The themes of the novel seem to be the way that bad choices come back to haunt us, and the relationship between fiction and reality - does Pendleton's depiction of the crime in Scream make him the criminal, someone who spoke to the criminal, or someone with a imagination unfortunately too close to that of the killer?
A touch of patience from thriller fans will be well rewarded. There are some fantasic scenes, such as the interrogation of another author and academic by the police, where he deconstructs the questions as though they are texts relating to an academic study of the philosophy of crime genre fiction.
All the main characters in The Secret Life are failures of one sort or another, at least in their own eyes, and are generally not at all reconciled to being so. There is the perennial student, the once fêted writer who cannot maintain his early promise, the writer who pursued commercial success and despises himself for it, the policeman unsatisfied by his second marriage, not to mention the people originally suspected of the murder, none of whom have done anything with their lives. They are not particularly likeable, either, which is something which usually makes it harder for me to enjoy a book; but this time, it did not, because of the interest of the idea and the complexity of the characters (who do at least have sympathetic traits as well).
The title is one of the poorest parts of The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton, being long, awkward, and unmemorable, as well as saying little about the themes of the novel. It has also been published as Death of a Writer, which is misleading and not very good either. A couple of minutes' thought suggested A Murder in Fiction, but I think that with only a modicum of effort, this too could be bettered.
My rating - 8/10.
Edition: Phoenix, 2007
Review number: 1455