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Rebecca Makkai's smart, prep school murder novel is self-aware about the 'ick' factor

I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Viking

Edgar Allan Poe, the creator of the modern mystery, was onto something when he declared that, "the death ... of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."

That weird and repugnant statement appeared over a century and a half ago in an essay called "The Philosophy of Composition," but Poe could be talking about the popularity of true crime podcasts and documentaries in our own day. From Serial to Up and Vanished to Dateline, true crime's troubling obsession with the deaths of beautiful young women translates, if not always into poetry, more predictably into high ratings.

Rebecca Makkai is well aware of the "ick" factor inherent in the subject of her new novel, I Have Some Questions for You. Her main character, a middle-aged film professor and podcaster named Bodie Kane, returns to the New Hampshire boarding school she attended as an alienated scholarship student to teach a mini-course on podcasting.

Bodie has made a name for herself with her podcast called Starlet Fever — which she describes as being "about dead and disenfranchised women in early Hollywood, about a system that would toss women out like old movie sets ..." The subject of her podcast along with her teaching stint at "Granby," as the school is called, stir up Bodie's memories of the death of her junior year roommate, a beautiful and popular girl named Thalia Keith, whose broken, bloodied body was found in the school pool. An athletic trainer named Omar Evans — one of the few people of color at the school back in the 1990s — was quickly arrested and convicted of the murder.

But rumors linger, especially about a mysterious older man in Thalia's life. Semi-hip to her own self-interested motives, Bodie proposes Thalia's murder as a possible research topic to her class of wannabe-podcasters. One zealous female student, after voicing concerns about "fetishizing" violent death, takes on the assignment — just the way so many of us, after mulling over similar scruples, immerse ourselves into those true crime podcasts and documentaries. Or, into this vastly entertaining novel about a fictional murder case.

I Have Some Questions for You is both a thickly-plotted, character-driven mystery and a stylishly self-aware novel of ideas. It's being rightfully compared to Donna Tartt's 1992 blockbuster debut, The Secret History, because of its New England campus setting and because of the haunting voice-over that frames both novels. Listen, for instance, to these fragments from Bodie's incantatory introduction:

"You've heard of her," I say — a challenge, an assurance. To the woman on the neighboring hotel barstool who's made the mistake of striking up a conversation, to the dentist who runs out of questions about my kids and asks what I've been up to myself.

Sometimes they know her right away. Sometimes they ask, "Wasn't that the one where the guy kept her in the basement?" ... The one where she went to the frat party ... The one where he'd been watching her jog every day?

No: it was the one with the swimming pool. ...

"That one," because what is she now but a story, a story to know or not know, a story with a limited set of details, a story to master by memorizing maps and timelines."

Of course, in the decades since Tartt's groundbreaking campus mystery appeared, the internet has happened. Throughout I Have Some Questions for You, the internet and its veritable flash mob of amateur online Columbos is a constantly intrusive character, posting videos and generating red herrings and other theories about Thalia's murder.

Don't worry: Makkai has not settled here for one of those open-ended ruminations on the impossibility of ever finding the truth. That kind of post-modern ending has worn out its welcome.

Some of this material even changes the direction of the investigation launched by Bodie and her students. That investigation is almost derailed when, at a crucial moment, Bodie's estranged husband becomes the focus of a #MeToo accusation that threatens her own reputation as an advocate for women. How do you tease out the facts, this novel insistently asks, from a subjective thicket of bias, wavering memories, groupthink and gossip? And, how much does the form your investigation takes — in this case, a podcast — determine which details are spotlighted and which ones are ditched because they don't make a dramatic enough story?

Don't worry: Makkai has not settled here for one of those open-ended ruminations on the impossibility of ever finding the truth. That kind of post-modern ending has worn out its welcome. But in a twist worthy of Poe, Makkai suggests that the truth alone may not set you free or lay spirits to rest.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.