Warren Dunford's Making a Killing (Penguin, 334 pages, $24.00 ISBN: 014100480) is the kind of book that the CanLit establishment tends to frown upon¨a commercial piece with lots of plot and action, little artistic expression and just enough craft to keep it all together.
The novel's protagonist Mitchell Draper, a screenwriter, has just been fired from 'Fun Five Fish', a "pseudo-educational kid's TV show". Mitchell now plans to write a commercial box office smash (artistic achievement is not an objective at this point, fame and fortune is what matters). His early screenplay ideas include bizarre new age cults, psychics foreseeing deaths and other schlocky B movie clichTs.
Mitchell is jaded and cynical, mostly due to the fact that he has little money and little success (his only major hit has been a horror movie he wrote called 'Hell Hole'). In William Dunford's first novel, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture, Dunford had Mitchell writing a clichTd Mafia crime thriller for a shady movie producer.
Toward the beginning of the novel Mitchell goes through the five essential ingredients to writing a commercial hit¨murder, sex, rich people, celebrities and the supernatural. All of these ingredients make up this novel.
Obviously, Dunford is being playfully ironic by having a screenwriter writing a commercial screenplay while he himself is writes a commercial novel. Dunford (who probably had his tongue in his cheek the whole time he wrote the book) makes it clear to the reader not to take the novel too seriously and not to expect much art.
The cover is the first tell-tale sign of the camp the reader should expect from the novel. Adorned with a simple close-up of a woman screaming, the image could be a snapshot from any of the typically campy horror and mystery films that came out of the 1950s. The novel's mystery revolves around a decades-old murder suicide of a father and his schizophrenic son. When Mitchell learns of these deaths he wonders whether there is actually more to the story. The cops had come to the conclusion that the son had killed his father and then killed himself. Of course Mitchell discovers that the cops were wrong, and he decides that he will solve the mystery and then fictionalize his findings in his screenplay.
Here Dunford brings together all the elements of a typical whodunit. The number of suspects is almost infinite¨did the son actually do it or were they both murdered as part of a set-up? Was it the father's angry business partner? His jealous wife? His mistress? The therapist? A jilted lover? And of course the murder-suicide happened at a party in a Gothic mansion on Friday the 13th.
The sex ingredient comes in by way of Mitchell's affair with Aaron, a movie executive who already has a boyfriend. The affair is portrayed with about as much emotion as a one night stand¨it's just a trashy sexual escapade to titillate the senses (needed for the book's formula, not the plot).
The paranormal phenomena begins when toward the beginning of the novel a psychic tells Mitchell that she "feels a mystery around him". Mitchell then starts seeing visions and begins to wonder whether the dead son is trying to communicate with him from the grave to help him solve the crime and let the truth be told.
As the mystery begins to unwind like an elaborately knotted film reel, the reader is introduced to a supporting cast of quirky oddball characters. There's Mitchell's neighbour, Cortland McPhee a famous interior designer dying of cancer; his bestfriends¨Ingrid, an artist and actor Ramir who is in a cult called the 'Seven Gateways to Spiritual Success' led by the mysterious guru Dr. Bhandari. These characters could all use some more fleshing out as they lack the kind of substance that evokes feeling from the reader.
The novel's action is slow to begin with, but quickly snowballs towards a dramatic climax. The ending makes it worthwhile for the reader to wade through the novel's rough spots; Mitchell's findings about what really happened that night at the party is a brilliantly elaborate shocker that no reader could ever guess. ˛