Monday, May 04, 2009

Griggs's Dead: Cheerfully Insane WhoDunit

From the London Free Press:

This cheerfully insane whodunit recounts the misadventures of Chellis Beith, ValuMart stockboy turned researcher/amateur detective by an eccentric murder mystery writer.

Chellis is, in fact, a grown man, toiling at ValuMart while mourning the sudden death of his beloved adoptive mother, Rennie.

Rennie was "sent spiralling into the NetherWorld" when her bicycle was struck by an "SUV driven by an SOB," as Griggs has narrator Chellis colourfully explain.

Her death is particularly painful since Rennie raised Chellis after his birth mother abandoned the infant at the burger stand where Rennie worked.

After her death, Chellis fills his time lifting "trashy novels" from the store which he reads at night and returns in the morning. He soon meets mystery writer Athena Havlock who is scanning the store's trashy novels when Chellis recommends she read one which - unbeknownst to Chellis - Havlock herself has written.

Havlock- flattered someone's read the thing and has praise for it, but concerned by Chellis's critique citing "factual slip-ups" - hires him on the spot as her literary researcher.

Griggs writes: "Mrs. Havlock had picked him up in the local ValuMart one day along with the gherkins and Melba toast.

"She bagged him and carted him home."

Thus begins a fascinating relationship with Havlock supplying Chellis with a steady stream of investigative assignments washed down with his favourite pastime - cocktails.

When a body shows up in a nearby little town and turns out to be that of a Toronto book reviewer who once gave Havlock a "dismissive" review, the plot takes off in an infinity of directions.

Havlock is just one of the offbeat female characters in Chellis's world.

There's Elaine, the ex-wife he's still obsessed with, who invents things ranging from the "fly catcher," a tiny security system to alert men if they forget to zip their pants, to a bar of soap with remarkable super-glue-like qualities. (The soap plays a pivotal role, later.) There's also Moe, ex-wife and girlfriend (in that order) to Chellis's best pal, Hunt.

It was Moe's idea the couple stay together after the divorce.

An apparent cameo role that will turn into something bigger features my personal favourites, elderly sisters Bev and Brandy who wait tables at the local greasy spoon, The Age Spot.

Bev sets Chellis straight when he asks if her name badge stands for Beverly.

"Got that wrong," Bev replies.

"Name's short for Beverage. Sister's name is Brandy. Parents were drinkers."

Then there's the drop-dead gorgeous Bethany who shows up at Chellis's door with the shocking news she is his half-sister - her mother being the same woman who dumped baby Chellis at Lloyd's Burger Stand all those years ago.

When Mrs. Havlock mysteriously vanishes, Chellis is initially too enamoured of Bethany to care much.

But his neurotic nature and some real-life close calls convince him she's fallen victim to something akin to one of her own plot lines.

The title Thought You Were Dead could apply to several subplots, most obviously Chellis's decision in a moment of drunken reverie to write his own obit, which is subsequently published in the Penny Pincher.

Then there's Hunt's "cardiac event" that has Chellis preparing to bury his best buddy. And of course, there's the missing Mrs. Havlock.

Griggs' writing is sharply witty and swings between baffling and brilliant.

Her unique manipulation of language and metaphors is her gift which has brought her past acclaim, including being shortlisted for the Governor-General's Award for her book Quickening.

The former Londoner has been described as a writer's writer, which may explain why the reader is challenged to sit up and pay attention to follow her many literary tangents.

Thought You Were Dead remains lively and inventive, right through to its entangled ending.

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Author Terry Griggs, is launching her new novel, Thought You Were Dead, at London's Landon Branch library, 167 Wortley Rd., Wednesday, May 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Mary-Jane Egan is a Free Press reporter/copy editor.

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