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The 22 Murders of Madison May
by Max Barry
GP Putnam, $27.00, 336pp
Published: July 2021

Max Barry is an Australian novelist, essayist and blogger, but this read to me rather like an American movie, one that usually manifested as a fantastic indie feature that too few people saw but enough to prompt Hollywood to make their own big budget adaptation of it with a couple of female stars du jour that does well even though it isn't as good as the original. It's not too long on substance but there's a strong combination of humour and tension, setup and action, suspense and, yes, murder, even if we're not there for all 22 murders of the title.

Madison May is... well, let me back up from sentence one because there are a lot of ways to finish that sentence, depending on which Madison May we're talking about. None of them return from the dead. Once they're murdered, that's it for Madison May. Except the next one.

Let me explain. As we begin, Madison May is a realtor, showing a fixer upper to a client, who murders her. Felicity Staples isn't usually a crime reporter, but her paper's crime reporter is unavailable, so it's Felicity who drives out to cover Madison's crime scene. So far, so traditional. Things become much less traditional when she figures out a connection between a symbol scrawled on the wall over the corpse and the logo on the hat of a bystander. She identifies the symbol as a company, visits its HQ, finds the bystander and follows him, only to be given some sort of metallic egg and pushed off a train platform.

Felicity does not die because this isn't about her murders, but she climbs back up after the train goes past, heads home and finds things just a little different. She only has one cat now, instead of two. Her paper's phone number is different. And, when she sees her office, the clock that's been hanging there since 1803 isn't there any more. More to the point, nobody recognises the name Madison May, until a day or so later when she's murdered. Again. And this time she's a performing arts student.

It doesn't take much to figure out that the mysterious metallic egg somehow shifted Felicity Staples into a parallel universe or an alternate timeline or whatever explanation we aren't really given. She's not in Kansas anymore, Toto, metaphorically speaking and so the mystery begins. Someone unknown is killing Madison May over and over again for reasons unknown, moving in fashion unknown between dimensions or worlds or whatever and only Felicity seems to know it.

As you might imagine from my previous paragraph, Max Barry isn't really interested in explaining this in science fiction terminology. It just is and we have to accept that to move on. Felicity isn't crazy, even if people around her think she is. There's even a point where she seeks out some boffin to suggest, in a theoretical fashion, of course, what's possible and all he has are theories. This is not hard sf. It's just a character study, wrapped up in an unusual murder mystery framework.

And, while you might imagine that the lead is Felicity Staples, who remains the same Felicity Staples throughout the book, is merely one who gradually learns more about what's going on and what it might mean not only to the killer and the victim but to her, the protagonist of the story. About the only rule that seems unbreakable is that you can't go back. So the life she knew is gone, replaced by one that's remarkably similar but not the same. The boyfriend she had is gone, replaced by an approximation, a Gavin who likes to cook or wears a beard or pays a little more attention. Thinking about what the egg did to Felicity is a heck of a rabbit hole, because there are so many little ramifications that get brutal when we realise them.

Talking of brutal, I found that Madison May became more than just a victim. While Felicity constantly remains the same person, whichever universe she's in, Madison constantly changes. Not much, I must point out, but enough. Acting is usually there in some form, whether she's a realtor who wishes she'd gone into acting, a student who's doing commercials in hope of a break or a bona fide star, courtesy of a particular character role in a particular movie that she impressed in. If she landed it in this universe and it worked out. Maybe she sought the part and lost it or didn't apply. The one and only constant in Madison's life is that, just as we're getting to know her, the same person murders her.

And I love that. To me, the best part of the book was discovering who Madison May is going to be next transition. It's like if you wandered into somewhere you've never been and bump into someone from a long time ago that you instantly remember, even though you'd totally lost track of them decades ago, like a friend's sister you crushed on but never told, and now you just have to know what went on during those missing years. Somehow, Barry makes us care about Madison May, having us bump into her over and over again to find out what she's been up to while we were off living our own life. And, as soon as he has caring about her, he has her murdered again. The bastard.

I can't talk about much more than that, as the core of the plot is really simple. The bad guy travels to another universe or whatever it is, finds Madison May and kills her. Rinse and repeat, while good girl tries to beat him to it and save her. Everything else is a new detail or a complicating factor and that's where the real discovery lies under a banner that screams spoiler, so you should find those out all on your own. Do it before someone makes the inevitable movie out of this. And especially do it before a similarly inevitable Hollywood remake hits a streaming service near you. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Max Barry click here

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