***Jack of Spades

playing card, Jack of Spades

(photo: Poker Photos, creative commons license)

By Joyce Carol Oates – This rather short (200-page) new psychological thriller is told as a first-person narrative by successful mystery author “Andrew J. Rush.” Rush thinks of himself with quote marks around his name, perhaps because he’s beginning to realize identity is more ephemeral than he’s heretofore believed. The reader soon learns he’s begun secretly writing a new series of books under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” These books are an exceptionally dark, crude, and surprisingly popular [!] departure from AJR’s usual output. Worse, writing books under his own name is laborious, whereas Jack of Spades books fly onto the page from the tip of his pen.

AJR is one of those intriguing characters, the unreliable narrator. He is self-obsessed, but not self-aware. The reader realizes immediately that, given a choice between behavior that makes sense and behavior that will get him into trouble, he will choose trouble every time. When a woman from the local community launches a baseless plagiarism suit against him, he has two choices: a) call his publisher’s legal department; or b) telephone the woman and try to reason with her. You or I would lawyer up. AJR, of course, chooses b), which leads to a frightful scene.

It turns out this plaintiff is slightly unhinged, with a history of suing prominent authors for stealing her outlines and ideas—she’s even sued Stephen King, his lawyer tells him—and the court readily dismisses her complaint. But AJR can’t let it go; he becomes obsessed with her. Added to this is the increasingly insistent voice of Jack of Spades who, like a malevolent Jiminy Cricket, goads AJR toward further steps in all the wrong directions.

Early in the book, the dogged plaintiff reminded me of the fangirl-turned-vicious in Stephen King’s Misery. (Although Oates takes her novel in a different direction, the King thriller must have been in her mind, too, because she includes a reference to it.) Strangely energized by his growing fears, it is AJR who repeatedly courts a confrontation with his litigious nemesis, escalations conveyed vividly in Oates’s tension-filled writing.

This being a novel whose narrator is an author, it includes some early passages disguised as notes on craft that are actually deft foreshadowing. AJR is discussing the structure of the book he is currently working on and how he plans to include a contrasting “hero” and “villain” in alternating chapters, with the hero prevailing in the end. AJR and the asides from the Jack of Spades play those contrapuntal roles, as well. His planned final punishment of the villain is part of the implicit contract between mystery authors and their readers that allows for “an ending that is both plausible and unexpected.” If there’s a flaw in Oates’s book, it is that the ending falls short of that goal.

By making the narrator a somewhat high-brow mystery writer, Oates can quite naturally adopt a voice for the book that reveals a great deal about AJR in its pretentiousness and deprecating attitude regarding his wife and certainly the townspeople. As a reader, you probably won’t like AJR, but it’s delicious to see such a creep get himself into deeper and deeper trouble. It’s too bad he takes others with him.

A slightly longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.