Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Book Review: "Dear Mr. M" by Herman Koch

I read a lot of mystery novels, so there are not a lot of twists and conventions and formulas that I have not seen before. But Herman Koch's "Dear Mr. M" began and ended with twists that I found new and intriguing.

The book opens in the form of a letter, in the words of the title itself: "Dear Mr. M". It's not clear at first, who is writing the letter, nor who is being addressed in the letter. Mr. M. is established as being the author of a novel based on a true crime, and someone personally known to the letter writer. But perhaps not exactly personally known by the letter writer - the letter writer knows about Mr. M's life, but does Mr. M know him? Or is the letter writer a stalker, perhaps even a criminal? Or perhaps it is Mr. M. who is the criminal, being stalked by the letter writer who knows his crimes? The author tantalizes us with clues, not even telling us right away what crime has been committed, never mind by whom it was committed.

Over the course of the novel, we meet the various players in the unfolding scenario: a group of high school friends, and a teacher who has an affair with one of the students and later disappears. Is he dead, or did he merely change his identity and walk away from his life after the affair is broken off? Is he, himself, Mr. M? Is Mr. M one of the students, perhaps even the murderer - if a murder was even committed? Koch gives the reader just enough clues to keep him interested, allowing a single piece of the puzzle to fall into place before tossing in another confusing clue.

The true test of a clever mystery is, of course, to keep the reader guessing until the very end, and Koch accomplishes this in spades, saving one final twist until nearly the last page of the book. The most effective plot twists are not ones that stretch credulity, but that make the reader realize that the twist is perhaps the only possible outcome, given the clues and hints the author has scattered throughout the book. And the revelations in the final chapter were so well done in this case that it actually made me immediately turn back to the first page and re-read the whole entire book with new eyes.

I found Koch's use of language to be lovely and descriptive, although occasionally it becomes clear that the novel is a translation from the original Dutch, as dialogue is sometimes stilted or feels unnatural to the English-speaking reader's ear. But on the whole, I enjoyed the writing style as much as the plot itself.

On the whole, I found "Dear Mr. M" to be an intriguing mystery, full of interesting and realistic characters, with a story that kept me involved and guessing until the surprising - and satisfying - ending.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. For additional information on this book, please see the Penguin Random House website.

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