Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Duplicate Keys' Locks Down Friendship and Murder

Halfway through Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys I could not WAIT to finish reading so that I could share my thoughts through writing about it. Now that I am finished, I'm sadly disappointed to say the ending wasn't quite as good as the middle. However, my sights were set high -- since Smiley's A Thousand Acres (one of my favorite books, read long before the movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer & Jessica Lange was ever filmed), she hasn't managed to write anything I liked as much as that novel. This was one good in its own right, though, and very different from her other novels. I believe that is a sign of an excellent author -- each novel standing alone in its particular glory, glowing with its separate merit.

Published in 1984, Duplicate Keys is what I would call a literary mystery. There is a definite murder mystery plot, but rather than being written in typical James Patterson-style, page-turner fashion, Smiley writes this mystery as she would any other novel.

Character development is pivotal -- it is the story of six friends who move to New York City together from the Midwest. Two of the friends are found murdered in a communal apartment at the beginning of the story, and the novel spends its time examining those friends who are left. What are their reactions, how do they deal with their grief, and what might their motives be for committing the crime themselves? Written in third person, Smiley focuses her attention on city librarian Alice, one of the six original friends.

Alice finds the two murder victims when she visits the apartment to water plants for a friend who is away. In the subsequent chapters, Smiley shares with readers Alice's impressions of everyone from Detective Honey (the investigator in the murders) to Henry (a man she meets outside the apartment the day of the murders) to each still-living friend. It is through her eyes that the plot thickens and the mystery grow only more mysterious. Was it their rock musician lifestyle which caused the murders, or a more personal vendetta against them?

In spite of what I found to be a somewhat weak ending, Smiley still charms throughout the novel. Alice is truly likeable, as are other various and sundry characters. Smiley provides an in-depth examination of friendship in general, particularly those friends who one grows up knowing. "Friendship after all was a paltry thing, the bumping together of two round objects" (248), she writes at one point. I loved her description of a night spent together among friends and the way conversation develops:

This is how they would go on, Alice was tempted to think, certainly for the rest of the evening and maybe for years, maintaining separate residences, perhaps, but living as close together as a pair of shoes. Soon, sometime in the next ten minutes, the night's conversation would take root. First, two or three topics would be begun and discarded as boring or worn out. This would happen automatically, a result of the cake or the newspaper open on the floor or the view of a neighbor passing across the street. Inevitably, though, something would take root, and grow and branch and exfoliate into a whole evening's talk. (231-232)
Although not your typical bestselling mystery novel, Smiley manages to create something more than just that. The book cover shares a piece of the NYT Book Review on the novel: "A first-rate cliffhanger... This may be the anatomy of a murder, but... more compelling is the anatomy of friendship, betrayal and the bittersweet smell of near success." I agree on all accounts.

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