Audiobook: Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley
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Tags: A Thousand Acres pulitzer prize national book award friends keys apartment murder New York
Added: 4 years ago
by Jane Smiley
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Anchor (November 9, 2004)
Alice, an orderly librarian, is drawn into a murder mystery when her friend, a temperamental musician named Craig, is shot dead in his apartment. Their group of friends, who came to New York City together to make a life for themselves and for two, hit it big in the music business are in turns suspicious and supportive of their companions. A detective begins to examine the case, probing further and further into their lives, and it begins to seem to Alice that one of her friends may be the murderer. Smiley excels at describing intimate details of every day life and has an ear for dialogue. The result is a book more leisurely than your average murder mystery, but still worth reading. Indeed the murder seemed to be more tacked on to the story, then having been the hub around which it revolved.
Alice Ellis is a Midwestern refugee living in Manhattan. Still recovering from a painful divorce, she depends on the companionship and camaraderie of tightly knit circle of friends. At the center of this circle is a rock band struggling to navigate New York's erratic music scene, and an apartment/practice space with approximately fifty key-holders. One sunny day, Alice enters the apartment and finds two of the band members shot dead. As the double-murder sends waves of shock through their lives, this group of friends begins to unravel, and dangerous secrets are revealed one by one. When Alice begins to notice things amiss in her own apartment, the tension breaks out as it occurs to her that she is not the only person with a key, and she may not get a chance to change the locks.
Jane Smiley applies her distinctive rendering of time, place, and the enigmatic intricacies of personal relationships to the twists and turns of suspense. The result is a brilliant literary thriller that will keep readers guessing up to its final, shocking conclusion.
Smiley, a gifted novelist of family-relations (Born Blind, At Paradise Gate), goes murkily astray this time--in a Manhattan murder-mystery that probes, with talky stiffness, the inter-relations among an unappealing group of old Minnesota college friends, now all early-30s New Yorkers. (Not unlike The Big Chill set-up, but without the charm.) Denny Minehart and Craig Shellady, brother-like leaders of a not-quite-famous rock band, are found dead in the apartment they've shared for years with Denny's longtime lover, boutique-manager Susan Gabriel. The shocked discoverer of the bodies: Susan's best friend Alice Ellis--librarian, ex-wife of poet/prof Jim, and the novel's moody heroine. Whodunit? Was it another band-member, druggie Noah Mast, whose wife was sleeping with the charismatic, volatile Craig? Did something go wrong with a cocaine-selling deal arranged by another old pal, homosexual sound-man Ray? Or was the killer one of the many other people who had keys to the Denny/Craig/Susan apartment? Alice, a quiet type uncomfortable at the center of the ensuing tensions, mulls these possibilities, raking over past relationships--often in numbing conversations with strong, glamorous Susan. ("Well, doesn't all of this seem weird to you? The patterns of our lives formed twelve years ago! And they didn't basically change until now!") Alice also finds time to fall in love--cute talk, earnest sex--with botanist/neighbor Henry, even if (for unconvincing reasons) she can't bear to tell him about the murders. But then, while Noah is indeed arrested, Alice suddenly, intuitively knows that Susan committed the murders. ("Nonetheless, Alice knew that her adoration of her friend, and her anticipation of lasting, comfortable intimacy was greater than ever.") So this disturbing knowledge will mess up the Henry relationship. . . until a longwinded finale (Susan stalks Alice, Susan confesses), paves the way for a tinny, happy fadeout. Smiley extracts a few shrewd effects from the quiet, naturalistic approach to violence and grief: there's ironic, credible emphasis on what everybody eats and wears. Her prose is often stylish, thoughtful. But, unlike Barn Blind and At Paradise Gate, this novel is layered with artificial situations and implausible motivations--from Alice's tortured friendships to Susan's much-belabored murder motive (which relates to the undeveloped theme of the rock band's non-celebrity). Moreover, Smiley doesn't seem to know this world first-hand: details and dialogue lack authentic edges. A blurry, ambitious cluster of themes, then, never coming into focus--or rising above the murder-melodrama format.
"I had a key. I was there to water Susan's plants, but I've always had a key. Each of the guys in the band would have one, and other friends, too." Across from Alice, Police Detective Honey jotted something on a pad. When he moved his hand, Alice read, upside down, ? keys out. She said, "Once on the subway I overheard a guy with a suitcase say to someone else, 'Richie knows a place where we can sleep. He's got a key.' I didn't know any Richie, but I can't say I was surprised when the guy on the subway turned up at Susan's apartment a day or so later, and let himself in. He wasn't a bad kid. I mean, he came to Manhattan to take management trainee job with RCA, but nobody knew him, and he did have a key."
Detective Honey looked at her attentively, but didn't write anything down. In the years Alice had lived in New York, she had never actually spoken to a New York cop. Although reassured by his wide, bland face, she wondered if he was on the take. She coughed into her hand, which was trembling, and went on as if with a psychiatrist. "It took a long time for the implications of that to faze Denny and Susan, and by that time everyone had a key. Then they talked about changing the locks, but it was a lot of money and trouble, and anyway, Denny was afraid of seeming hostile." Detective Honey grimaced and shook his head. Alice said, "I thought it was stupid, too."
"You were watering the plants, Miss Ellis?"
"Mrs. I was supposed to. I told Susan I would come every three days, even if the, uh, men were around, because she didn't really trust them to keep everything watered. Maybe you saw that she has beautiful plants." Thinking of the plants made her think of Denny and Craig. She winced. Detective Honey said, "And Miss Gabriel is where?" "In the Adirondacks. She should be home tomorrow night."
"In the Adirondacks in May?"
"She usually goes at odd times of the year. There's a cabin she rents, and it's too expensive in the summer."
"Have you accompanied her to this cabin?"
"No one has. It doesn't even have a telephone, and you have to hike in about three miles. Anyway, she hasn't ever really invited anyone. I think she likes the break."
Alice sat up straighter. "Well, getting away. You know. She's a very busy person, dealing with customers all day, and--" Her voice faded.
Detective Honey touched the tip of his pencil to the notepad, then suggested, "So you were there on Wednesday, and came back today?" All of his questions were mere suggestions posed with studied casualness that convinced Alice she was a suspect and make her feel craven. "I was there on Tuesday, actually, but I couldn't get back till today." She cleared her throat. "I left my place about ten or ten-fifteen. I walked down Broadway, and bought a paper at Seventy-ninth Street. The vendor knows me. It's ten blocks from my place, so it must have taken me about twenty minutes. I didn't see anyone. I let myself in, because there isn't a doorman, and went up the elevator to the sixth floor. I've been in that building almost more than I've been in my own, so I'm very familiar with everything about it. Nothing was different. I mean, out of place or anything." Honey drew his left hand across the paper and wrote behind it. "I opened the door. Everything was very neat." With the light streaming in, arrowing among the spikes of succulents, the ivy vines, the heavy, glossy leaves of avocados, the silvered masses of cyclamen, the rosy coleus. Drapes open, skylights blue with sunshine. Alice swallowed, but something in her throat would neither go down nor come up. The detective said, "Did you step into the room before you saw them?"
"They were sitting in chairs. I didn't expect to see them at all. I thought they had a gig somewhere up near Boston." Honey pushed her cup of coffee a few millimeters toward her and said, "As they were found by Officer Dolan?"
Alice nodded. "I said, 'Hi!' Just like that. "Hi!' I was glad to see them." The cherry greeting had resonated almost visibly in the air of the room, so that Alice had heard it and heard it the whole time she was looking. Somehow the riveting sight was not their ravaged faces, but Craig's foot half out of his boot, so that it looked broken or deformed. It took her a long time to realize that he must have been in the act of pulling his boot off when the shot was fired. Honey flipped back a page or two in his notebook. Alice said, "I didn't touch anything.
"Call received at eleven twenty-eight. That's approximately an hour, Miss Ellis."
"What did you do after discovering the victims?"
"I think I stood there for a long time, but I don't know how long. Then I walked around the apartment."
"And yet you say that you didn't touch anything?"
"I kept my hands in my pockets. I didn't want to touch anything. I didn't even want to breathe.
"You put in your call from?"
"From Broadway, but I had to walk down a few blocks to find a phone that was in order."
"So you were alone in the apartment for approximately half an hour?"
"I suppose, yes."
Honey made marks on his pad, inhaling one large disapproving breath that seemed to drain the small office of oxygen. Alice said, "Maybe you don't understand how shocked I was. I've never seen a corpse. All my grandparents are still alive. We never even had a dog that died."
"Did you notice anything at all that seems unusual? You were there a long time. Try to remember as carefully as you can. Perhaps you can call up a detail that you think you didn't notice. The scene of a crime, Mrs. Ellis, can be remarkably eloquent, but even the well-meaning presence of an untrained or unobservant person can silence much of what it has to say."
Pompous, Alice thought, but, rebuked, she blushed. "I should have turned right in the doorway and left?"
Honey shrugged his assent, but said only, "Please think as carefully as possible."
"I was very upset."
"But what did you see?"
Alice thought for a couple of minutes, but it was impossible to say. When she made herself recall the scene of the crime square inch by square inch, she couldn't tell if she was merely seeing what she knew would be in Susan's apartment. "Nothing comes to me."
Detective Honey cleared his throat. Alice wondered if he were about to run her in. Did the daughters of hardware store owners from Rochester, Minnesota, actually wind up in Women's Detention for stumbling upon murder victims? It was not something you learned about, in the end, from reading Kafka, or The New York Times. He said, "Perhaps you could tell me something about yourself, then, Mrs. Ellis."
"The smell was very sharp. I was upset and kind of physically shocked. My bones and muscles seemed like they were vibrating."
"You are not a native New Yorker?"
Alice looked at him for a moment. Was it time to ask for a lawyer, cite Miranda, stand up and refuse to answer any more questions? But when she opened her mouth, she was naming herself, Alice Marie Ellis, divorced, no children, aged thirty-one, librarian, New York Public Library, main branch, 557 West Eighty-fourth Street. Native of Rochester, Minnesota, mother nurse, father in hammers and hoses, former husband poet and college teacher. Resident in New York, six years, five of them at present address. No felonies, no misdemeanors, no car.
Detective Honey smiled for the first time, confidently, Alice thought. He was a big man, with routine confidence of big men. Looking at him was difficult. Conjecture seemed to bounce back at her, like sunlight off the fender of a car. He said, "I'll be in touch with you, Mrs. Ellis," and stood up. Alice stood up, too, and then, almost immediately, she was outside, in front of the precinct station. It was a brilliant day, of breezy clarity and substantial warmth. On the fifth floor of the building across the street, yellow awnings bowed and popped in the wind, as if at the beach and not in the middle of Manhattan. In just this way she had stepped out of her building at ten or ten-fifteen this morning, paused and looked up at gray stone, sharp shadows, azure sky, happy that Susan would be home tomorrow. "Mmmm, what a day!" she had exclaimed, and a man walking by had smiled and nodded. It was the sixth beautiful day in a row.
Alice stood and stood, smack in the path of traffic into the station, not knowing what to think, gazing at the free air of the free city of New York, relishing, even after such a brief time in the station, her present freedom of choice, but also unable to step away from the security of the busy building. To her right, leafy and rolling beyond the tunnel of buildings, Central Park beckoned: the zoo, the Met, the Natural History Museum, vendors of hot dogs and felafel, renters of bicycles, roller skaters, swings and slides. She stood and yearned, stepped forth, turned left toward Broadway.