Before she became a superstar with The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler was a novelist with critical acclaim and a few awards under her belt. That's shorthand for "beloved by the literati, but doesn't move many units." Now that Jane Austen has changed that, who will Fowler become? Does her newfound fame lead toward a career as a chick-lit author, a genre master, or a regional favorite? Or does it lead back to her previous mid-level literary success? Wit's End, Fowler's new novel, doesn't exactly answer those questions. It's neither fish nor Fowler, in a way—a riff on the mystery genre that tries to internalize the usual murders into an exploration of an orphan's fragile psyche. Thanks to Fowler's incisive voice and pithy wit, it's a pleasant read. And yet it's too slight for the literary crowd, and too meandering for the mystery buffs.
Rima, the novel's protagonist, arrives in California after the death of the last remaining family member to serve as assistant to her godmother, Addison Early, the author of a famous series of detective novels featuring Maxwell Lane. Deeply conflicted about the hatred her mother bore for Addison, Rima decides to address her grief by channeling Lane and uncovering the secrets of Addison's relationship with Rima's father, for whom Addison named a murderer in one of her novels. Real-life mysteries involving the meticulous dollhouses Addison constructs to help her plan murder scenes, as well as the derelict cult headquarters in the mountains above Santa Cruz, intervene and intersect with Rima's personal quest for answers.
Fowler has clearly been inspired by the distinctive style of private-eye novelists like Sue Grafton, as well as by the Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee, and she makes an intellectual puzzle out of their relationship to the virtual worlds it's possible to build online. Rima is surrounded by impermanence; the clues she manages to derive from blogs and fanfic are as unstable as the crumbling bluff on which Addison's coastal home sits, and as dangerous as twisty Highway 17. Perhaps it's inevitable that the plot seems too wispy and the characters too shallow for the lethally sharp writing that delineates them. Like the worlds it describes, Wit's End is absorbing, but ultimately insubstantial.