The Monsters of Gramercy Park
by Danny Leigh
Published by Faber & Faber (UK)
400 pages, 2005
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime Writer
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
Once upon a time, a thriller was solely designed to, well, thrill. All the author had to do was tell a gripping story, keep the tension at an unbearably high level and shock readers with ever-surprising twists and turns. But crime-fiction readers are a savvy bunch, and their tastes grow and change even if the publishing industry isn't always certain what to make of it all. The upshot is that thrillers have become much more complex, more character-driven and -- dare I say it? -- more literary. It's not enough to make the pulse race anymore.
Danny Leigh goes even a step further with his first crime effort and second novel (after 2004's The Greatest Gift), not satisfied to simply expand the canvas of possibility by making The Monsters of Gramercy Park part cat-and-mouse game, part exploration of prison solitary confinement and part children's story. No, he opts for the meta-thriller route as well, making one of his co-protagonists a crime writer. This opens up an entirely different vein of questions: what happens when the well runs dry? What happens when a bestselling author is thrown into a major crisis? And what happens when the salvation of her career may spell her personal undoing?
With so many story questions, the London-based Leigh runs the risk of overstuffing his novel, crowding it with too many ideas. But though it takes a bit of time to get going, the end result is riveting, with much food for thought doled out along the way.
When we first meet Lizbeth Greene, she is at the top of her class, a crime writer with 14 hit novels to her credit and an adoring legion of fans. She'd started auspiciously after publishing an account of her abduction and near-rape when she was a young college student, and then turned to more fictional tales of murder and mayhem. But all is not well for fair Lizbeth, who seems to be a cross between Patricia Cornwell and Ruth Rendell. She lives in seclusion in a fortified Connecticut mansion with only her personal assistant as company. When stressed -- as she often is -- she injects heroin into her toes, craving the occasional release from the rigors of her daily life. And as for the writing, well, it's not going too well. She stares at the computer screen and wonders where the magic that had carried her through more than a dozen gory serial-killer novels has gone. She has no idea what to do next.
Unfortunately, Lizbeth isn't the only one aware of her own crisis. The critics are taking aim, pointing out just how badly her work has declined. The last straw occurs at her own latest launch party; seeking to escape the claustrophobic, sycophantic setting, Lizbeth hides out in the bathroom, where she encounters a newly minted editorial assistant clueless about the author's identity. The assistant asks:
'Do you know Lizbeth Greene?'
Such mortification can only lead to a major decision, and for Lizbeth, only a major shift in direction will suffice. It comes in the company of convicted murderer Wilson Velez.
Velez is a noted New York-based gangster, housed in the Essenville, Pennsylvania, penitentiary for murdering several gang lords and drug runners. He's been in solitary confinement for so long -- months, stretching to years -- that he's lost track of time. Not only that, but Velez is going slowly mad, losing his power to speak without stuttering (which is represented by literal dialogue, a device that takes a bit of getting used to). It is harsh treatment for any prisoner, but for Velez, it's almost catastrophic. Aside from occasional communications sent to the outside world, his only outlet is a carefully illustrated story of Gramercy Park gargoyles come to life. Hour after hour, Velez adds to this fable, painstaking in his goal to craft the best story possible.
Velez has one simple goal: to get out of solitary confinement. But even as the opportunity to do so grows dimmer and dimmer, fate steps in with other ideas. For when Lizbeth Greene chances upon an article about Velez's plight, her writer's block disappears and her mind sharpens into focus. She instantly decides that she can resurrect her career by telling Velez's story -- his origins, his motivations and the cruelty of being imprisoned in such conditions as he endures. Lizbeth travels to Essenville to set up a series of conversations with Velez that will comprise the bulk of her book, and firmly believes her championing of him is a simple, mutually beneficial process.
But of course, it never seems to work out that way, and it's only when a murder shocks the prison town that Lizbeth must question the motives underlying both of their quests.
That it took so long to summarize the setup of The Monsters of Gramercy Park is indicative of this novel's main weakness. Although Leigh's writing is always interesting and mixed with sharp humor, and developing Lizbeth Greene and Wilson Velez as distinctive characters is important, the story really doesn't begin until Lizbeth arrives in Pennsylvania for her first round of interviews. This awkward shift from character study to suspense thriller might have been avoided had the action begun at this point; for what follows is an excellent mixture of character exposition and plot twists, as Lizbeth and Velez begin a fractious, almost sexually charged relationship wherein each wants something of the other, but those desires shift constantly, surprising both of them.
The speed of page-turning really picks up thanks to exchanges like this one, in which Lizbeth finds that she's been laboring under some supremely erroneous assumptions:
'OK, Lizbeth, I will tttttell you_somethingggggg now that you may findd useful. You deserve to_know thissss. Lizbeth, at one tttime I wrote a_lot of stories, sabes? I mean … perhaps very ffffew had any true merit … but I_wrote them_nonetheless. Story after sttttory after_story. And that taught me an unfailinggg lesson -- that what makes a_good story is notttt what is_in it, but what is_absent from itttt.'
The Monsters of Gramercy Park also works as an exploration of how the modern publishing industry serves no purpose but its own, trading on infamy for book sales. Some of the best portions of this novel are those portraying Lizbeth's quest to get Velez's children's story into print; she uses her contacts, presses the right buttons and exploits Velez's newfound quest for validation as a writer with what she sees as selfless generosity, even though her actions illustrate the tit-for-tat nature of their association.
But perhaps most of all, author Leigh asks important questions in these pages about the nature of reality versus fiction, and examines the broad spectrum between what's true and what isn't. And as seen through Lizbeth's eyes, the idea that crime fiction ultimately pales in comparison to real crimes is a scary prospect indeed. A scene involving her and one of the prison guards hits this point home especially well:
'I have to tell you,' he says, 'when you first explained your idea to me, I was perplexed. But I think I understand. You know, I was speaking with a friend of mine in law enforcement recently ... he told me six in ten homicides currently go unsolved. Six in ten. And of those that are solved, the same number, the same ratio, are carried out by an assailant unknown to the victim. Now, that's no good for you, is it? As a writer? An office worker gets carjacked by a stranger in a ski mask, or that same stranger wanders out from an alleyway deranged on crack cocaine and stabs them to death. Not much in the way of a plot twist there, right? No grand whodunit. No, I can see why you might want to write something real. A true story. These must be hard times for a person in your industry. The days of the random and unsolved.'
There are no easy answers to this conundrum. Crime fiction strives to bring emotional and psychological truths to the forefront, but the continued popularity of real-crime tales and their supposed "unfettered look" at horrific acts brings up difficult issues of continued relevance. However, I expect the answer lies with the talent and imagination of the foremost genre writers as they keep pushing against inherent constraints. The Monsters of Gramercy Park may believe it's throwing down a gauntlet, but if so, then writers, present and future, will meet the challenge each time. | March 2005