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GOOD PROSE: Klavan's Strange Habit

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." -- Oscar Wilde


Edgar Award-winning author Andrew Klavan has published over 40 novels, three of which (True Crime, Don't Say a Word and Mrs. White) have been adapted to film. He has also written numerous screenplays, including 1990's excellent A Shock to the System, starring Michael Caine. In addition, Klavan has established himself as a columnist, political commentator and the host of The Andrew Klavan Show podcast. There is an old saying that if you want a job done well, give it to a busy man, and Klavan is nothing if not busy. His talent and work ethic are evident in his fiction, which is top drawer. It quickly becomes obvious upon sampling his work that one is in the hands of a prose master craftsman of unique skill. This is nowhere more evident than in A Strange Habit of Mind.


Klavan's grasp of language and the art of writing fiction is impressive. Anyone that has listened to his podcast is familiar with the man's penchant for amplifying a bon mot with ironic hyperbole and pyrotechnic absurdism. This roller-coaster language, part of what makes his podcast so entertaining, is tastefully scaled down in print but still evident. Much as a joke delivered on air can sharpen a barbed social or political observation, so does Klavan's humor serve to enrich his prose by offering bursts of color in an otherwise somber fictional universe. And make no mistake -- A Strange Habit of Mind is a somber book.


It is difficult to be original in genre, particularly in detective fiction -- arguably the most overdone genre of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Mystery novels abound with professional and amateur sleuths, mom detectives, detectives of color, detectives with (and without) cats, musical detectives, blind detectives, forgetful, alcoholic or mentally ill detectives -- the list goes on and on. But in Cameron Winter, Klavan offers us something truly rare: an intellectual protagonist. Winter is a university professor -- a lecturer specializing in the Romantic period, and something of an anachronism. A disciplined, principled man with old fashioned notions of honor, he navigates a university culture teeming with undergraduate apathy, political correctness and woke witch hunts. When a former student texts him immediately before committing suicide, Winter, whose prior career was in the intelligence community, feels impelled to find out why. And so we are launched on the turbulent waves of a mystery where narratives are inherently unreliable and every outward appearance conceals a hidden agenda. The thrills here are less about gunfights and car chases than about bushwhacking through a jungle of deep psychological uncertainty. Winter, a scholar, is the perfect protagonist to untangle such a profoundly cerebral mystery.


Part of the delight of the novel consists in watching a main character with old fashioned values negotiate a terminally modern world. Winter, more at home with Wordsworth than the World Wide Web, finds himself at odds with a shadowy tech billionaire named Gabriel Byrne. Part Steve Jobs, part Charles Manson, Byrne may or may not have something to do with the suicide of Winter's former student. To find out, Winter must plunge into the high-stakes world of big tech. And yet even in this computerized milieu wherein internet files can be scrubbed and the past re-written with the flick of a switch, some deeply human truths yet abide: the need for emotional connection, the fragility of trust and the scarcity of truth. These are the milestones of Winter's pilgrimage through a world where joy is fleeting, where lonely men's vulnerability both redeems and condemns them and the world of business and espionage overlap in uncomfortable ways.


The narrative is intercut with Winter's first-person account of his first mission as an agent of the Division, a shadowy splinter faction of the American intel community that specializes in covert assassination. Framed as a confession to his therapist, Winter's tale serves as the heart of the novel, driving the story to a deeper level. Yes, the good professor is searching for answers to why his former student killed himself. But in the tradition of books like Tough Guys Don't Dance, the outer mystery in A Strange Habit of Mind serves as a guidepost to a deeper mystery.


As a literary scholar, Winter is an expert at intuiting narratives and filling in the blanks left by wrongdoers. This strange habit of mind will lead him to the answer of why his student killed himself. But the answer leads to a deeper question. In a world where family has been replaced by isolation, sincerity by virtue signaling and bravery by bluff, what purpose does modern manhood serve? In hunting for the "moral" (as it were) of his student's death, Winter is engaged in nothing less than a search for meaning.


A Strange Habit of Mind is at once a compelling mystery novel and a complex exploration of human love, the meaning of friendship and the depths of male loneliness. Klavan's deft handling of the prose and his ability to juggle numerous narratives simultaneously results in a rewarding reading experience. Definitely good prose and highly recommended.

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