Child’s Play

There are two ways to approach the writing of a mystery novel: adhere to the rules, or break them with glee. It takes a mere three pages to discern that Child’s Play, Carmen Posadas’ newest novel to be translated into English, falls into the latter camp. In the novel’s opening paragraphs Posadas introduces Carmen O’Inns, an amateur sleuth of the Agatha Christie school (albeit with a constant need to “confirm she was looking as attractive as possible”) as she’s called to a private elementary school to ferret out the truth of a young boy’s death by drowning. But before the reader has a chance to fall in with this familiar sort of flushed prose bordering on the cliché, Posadas pans away and redirects our attention to her proper protagonist: Luisa Davila, internationally bestselling mystery writer and potential stand-in for the author herself.

Luisa, it transpires, has her own love-hate relationship with rules and order, especially those she makes up out of whole cloth. She is prone to speeches about the Christie Formula of thrillerdom (“all the characters in the plot the detective?one by one and alone, in order to present their version of events”) or the inexplicably named “Julio Iglesias theory” (“even something that seems infallible or simple common sense turns out to be true, sometimes yes, and sometimes no”). Her two brief marriages ended in divorce; her current relationship is desultory and inconsistent, and yet Luisa dubs him the “Man of my Life”; and the conception of her only child, 12-year-old Elba, remains a secret guarded by both shame and indifference. Even her makeup strategy is a battleground between control and entropy: her age of 52 is “well-disguised by face creams and make-up by day, but at night, and with three Bloody Marys inside her, things looked very different.” No wonder this figure of contradiction finds herself a semi-willing participant in the postmodernist tale Posadas sets out to tell, starting with Elba’s enrolment in a school not unlike the one O’Inns happens to visit in those opening pages.

One parallel begets another, and another. Elba’s school turns out to be the very one Luisa attended at the exact same age. Elba’s new best friend, Avril, is the daughter of Luisa’s childhood best friend, Sofia, whom she hasn’t seen for 40 years. And when a young boy dies at the school in a bizarre accident, it not only mirrors the case Luisa’s fictional sleuth is called to investigate but is a generational replica of the death that split Luisa from Sofia all those years earlier. Like cascading dominoes, the pieces start to fit a pattern, and Luisa herself starts to confuse her role as writer with that of her investigator, even succumbing to writer’s block as she traces the line from fiction to reality and back again.

Posadas aids and abets her heroine’s confusion with all manner of structural trickery. Sections from the O’Inns novel-in-progress both mirror and contradict the “real-life” narrative; a cache of printouts reveal — but also obfuscate — Elba’s links to her classmate’s death, just as they illuminate her mother’s past guilt; Enrique, the aforementioned “Man of My Life,” is alternately helpful and combative, keeping Luisa and her growing worries about life and art at bay even as he offers clues that seem to confirm her growing suspicions; Luisa’s point of view shifts abruptly from third person to first, perhaps in keeping with Luisa’s own ruminations about the subject (“ome argue that a person — you, me, anyone — is not a well-defined object, but is simply what other people see and believe him or her to be. This, by the way, is the reason why most writers prefer to tell stories in the first person, because that is the way we see life: from the unique, subjective eye of our own point of view”). Even the pool of suspects, from Elba to Sofia to Luisa’s long-ago classmate Miguel, now returned in the guise of a lothario-in-the-making, take their scripted dialogue and make a mockery of the process.

“Everybody writes their own story,” Luisa muses early on in the narrative. “What else are they supposed to write about? That’s not the problem; the problem arises if you don’t realize you’re doing it. The problem is when you’re too blind to see.” Though Child’s Play is ultimately more concerned with subverting storytelling expectations and satirizing the expected trajectory of traditional mystery, Posadas does embed some insights about the writer’s responsibility to the reader. Children are murdered, and yet the action happens offstage, veiled by a sepia-like haze that minimizes the sense of horror the reader ought to feel. But because Luisa has ensnared herself in a web of conspiracy and over-patterning, has she — and by extension, the reader — lost the thread of empathy and humanity? Never mind that O’Inns and Posadas share a first name, that Luisa and Posadas share a profession (and similar success in their native Spain), that Posadas herself has written mysteries of a traditional bent, including the culinary-themed Little Indiscretions and a modern-day update of the classic locked-room puzzle, Last Resort.

Child’s Play (or Juego de niños in the original Spanish) is the mirror reflection of its title, a complex retelling of what would be a simple tale in the hands of an author of lesser ambition. As a result, for those not inclined towards post-modernist narrative games, the novel can be a frustrating read because it doesn’t promise resolution — and, in fact, actively disdains one, even as all the strands tie together in the pattern Luisa desperately craves. But for those who are suspicious by nature and follow another character’s dictum that “you should never trust what you imagine, nor even what you see,” Child’s Play is a pungent brew of intellectual stimulation and deep thought about the rules that bind mystery writers and readers together, and why it is necessary to wrench them apart.