The Serialist
by David Gordon
Essay by Ted Gioia

"It all began the morning when, dressed like my
dead mother and accompanied by my fifteen-year-
old business partner, I opened the letter from death
row and discovered that a serial killer was my
biggest fan…."

Nothing like a good opening
sentence to grab your attention,
huh?  But with this starting-
point—as with so much in this
dazzling debut novel from
David Gordon—the reader
may puzzle over how much is
parody and how much admiring
emulation of the mystery genre.
Then again, the reader might
toss aside all these considerations,
and simply enjoy
The Serialist as a first-rate thriller.

Certainly Gordon has put in all the right ingredients.
The plot never lags, as he generously dishes out
murders, clues, suspects, and a host of unexpected
twists and turns. You may think that the crime has
been solved and the mystery put to rest after chapter
66—and wonder why another 13 chapters are waiting
for you.  But Gordon has several more surprises in
store, as he adds layer after layer of new complexities
and revelations in a tightly plotted and skillfully
executed conclusion.

But this author also manages to find time to draw
on almost every trick and device in the postmodern
arsenal as he unfolds his tale of a serial writer who
collaborates with a serial killer. The double
signification of the book's title is a fitting rubric
for a novel filled with so many double meanings,
double levels of interpretation and— but of course!
—double-crossings.  Gordon shows off his meta-
narrative mastery, incorporating a range of texts
within texts, mixing in literary theory with his leads
and clues, and sometimes bringing his authorial
presence into the forefront of the tale, while else-
where stepping back to allow his tale to unfold as a
straightforward thriller.  And taking a page out of
Paul Auster's playbook, Gordon shows that the
author of a mystery story can morph into a victim, a
suspect, a detective....or perhaps all of the above.

Our protagonist is Harry Bloch, a hack writer who
specializes in trashy genre books written under a
variety of pseudonyms.  These include: hard-boiled
detective novels, featuring Mordechai Jones, the
"ghetto sheriff," a Jewish African-American of mixed
Ethiopian and Native American ancestry;  
a series of trashy science fiction novels (typical title:
Whither Thou Goest, O Slutship Commander?) ; and—
Bloch’s latest project—vampire romances, written
under the name of his dead mother. (Apparently
vampire books written by men are a dud in the
marketplace.)  Excerpts of each of these genres are
presented at various points in
The Serialist, and serve
as comic vignettes in a novel that otherwise is quite

Bloch is prolific, but still can hardly pay his rent. A
big payday looms when a convicted serial killer on
death row offers to tell our author his life story—and
potentially the inside details of the headline-grabbing
murders that led to his arrest.  Time is running out,
however:  in a few weeks, the alleged murderer will be
executed by the state of New York.  And in exchange
for his personal confession, the murderer demands
that Bloch do some unsavory favors.

This part of the story proceeds according to the rules
of traditional crime novels, but Gordon pulls out all
of the stops, and shows a genuine knack for the very
genre categories he also parodies.  He draws on
elements of the police procedural, the suspense
thriller, the standard detective whodunit, and the
horror genre.   Usually a mystery writer excels at one
of these sub-categories, but Gordon seems equally
skilled at each—as well as at a number of other genre
styles as well.   He may be the literary equivalent of
those impressionists who can mimic the voices and
mannerisms of a host of famous people, and move
quickly and effortlessly from one to another.  

But just when you think Gordon may be too gim-
micky, he pulls back and take a critical stance. Some
of the best parts of this book are the author’s asides
on literary matters.  Here he offers up some
observations on serial killers and serial books:

"The conventional view of mysteries, as explained by
Auden, for example, is as an essentially conservative
genre.  A crime disturbs the status quo; we readers
get to enjoy the transgressive thrill, then observe
approvingly as the detective, agent of social order,
sets things right at the end.  We finish our cocoa and
tuck ourselves in, safe and sound….But what this
theory fails to take into account is the next book, the
next murder, and the next.  When you line up all the
Poirots, all the Maigrets, all the Lew Archers and Matt
Scudders, what you get is something far stranger and
more familiar: a world where mysterious destructive
forces are constantly erupting and where all solutions
are temporary, slight pauses during which we take a
breath before the next case."

I’m not sure whether there will be a next case for this
author.  I can’t imagine him making a career out of
crime fiction—a certain restless quality in the writing
here suggests that he may not stick with any style or
genre for long.   But his talent is  considerable, his
storytelling skills superb, and his sense for both the
dramatic and comedic well documented in this
impressive debut novel.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest
book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford
University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense

Further Clues:

Interview with Daivd Gordon

The Serialist (review by Owen Hill)

David Gordon's blog
David Gordon was inspired to write his
first novel after reading letters from
convicted criminals. As with the character
Darian Clay in
The Serialist, these prisoners
often complained about

being "wrongly incarcerated."  
Gordon explains: "Many
asked for lawyers or to
have their stories told,
though they would have
settled for free magazines.
I also considered writing an article on the
disturbing phenomenon of women who
write to prisoners, particularly those locked
up for violent crimes, and become
enamored with them. These two ideas
formed the basic situation in my mind."
Before embarking on his new career
as a novelist, Gordon gained experience as
a ghostwriter, teacher, tutor, copywriter,
poet, scriptwriter, foot messenger, shipping
clerk and editor of adult magazines—
the latter job presenting him with the
opportunity to read letters from convicts.   
Most of these professions find their way
into his debut novel, a postmodern
detective story with bits of sci-fi and
vampire fiction thrown in for good
measure. Gordon was born in Queens,
studied writing at Columbia University,
and lives in New York City. He is
currently working on two projects, a
"dark comic love story" set in New York
and a thriller about a bookstore clerk
turned detective in Los Angeles.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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