When an award-winning writer like Gary Krist abandons the obscurity of literary short stories for a highly visible genre like the thriller, the motive is no mystery: royalties, fame, maybe even a six-figure movie option.
No question, Bad Chemistry is intended to be a conventional suspense yarn with mayhem, dead bodies, etc. The heroine is Kate Theodorus, an ex-cop turned social worker who marries Joel Baker, a yuppie who works in importing. At a birthday party for the couple's dog, one of the canine guests is set on fire and later that night Joel disappears. Kate is forced to reevaluate her married life when the police find mind-altering drugs in Joel's file cabinet and then link the mutilated body of a murdered biochemist to her husband's business. Desperate for answers, Kate begins investigating the smart drugs that Joel's company (its motto -- "Better Living Through Biochemistry") sells over the Internet.
Krist has written a murder mystery with literary aspirations. Bad Chemistry explores epistemological questions, such as, what do we really know about our nearest and dearest? Early in their marriage, Kate views Joel as "a sixties student radical turned eighties entrepreneur turned nineties ... what? Socially conscious businessman? Neo-capitalist rebel? Kate didn't know what to call him." From there on in, he's increasingly unfathomable. That's OK, because Kate has lost touch with her own roots. She describes her visit to an art gallery as "a self-conscious act. The Theodoruses weren't a museum-going family. They were cops. They watched television."
The high-mindedness of Krist's investigation of character and self-knowledge isn't completely successful. Krist is too attuned to the Zeitgeist -- ex-hippies who want to reengineer psyches through designer drugs, the countercultural possibilities of the Internet and yesterday's radicals making uneasy peace with today's material success. His novel feels cynical and slight as literary fiction goes. Moreover, Krist's pseudo-hip cocktail of fantastic pharmaceuticals and computer hacking is sometimes dry and humorless, especially when held up against the ironic, tough-talking fun of classic thrillers. Still, the novel is taut, well-paced, and occasionally moving as it reflects on the fearsome project of loving another person. When Krist writes, "What a mystery marriage is ... any marriage, every marriage," it carries more weight than you'd expect from the next Hollywood blockbuster. -- Salon
It sounds like a thriller--a husband disappears, and the wife trying to track him down discovers that he may be an international drug dealer and a killer. But the folks at Random, who love this book, call it a real genre bender. From the author of The Garden State, winner in 1988 of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction.
David Willis McCullough
What makes ''Bad Chemistry'' more than another well-constructed genre novel are those dark
shadows beneath the surface, those intimations of everyone's need for what Joel calls an ''amazing
secret'' and what Evan describes as ''Something really important. Finally.''
The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
Joel talked her into throwing a birthday party for the dog. A big one. He wanted every pet from the neighborhood to come, with owners in tow. The invitations would be delivered by Hermann himself, each one clipped to a red bandanna around his neck. BYOB, they would read: Bring Your Own Bone.
"Oh great," Kate said when Joel first told her about the idea, showing her the design for the invitations on his computer. "People might think we really think this is funny."
"True, they might," Joel answered. He smiled as he played with the fonts on the screen. "And that would be the funniest part of all, wouldn't it?"
Kate shook her head and leaned over to whisper in his ear. "You're bad, you know that, Joel?"
"I know that," he said, clicking away on his mouse.
On the afternoon of the party--a damp, cold Saturday in November--two dozen people crowded around the edges of the downstairs family room in Joel and Kate's four-bedroom colonial, trying to make their animals sit quietly at the picnic blanket. Joel stood at one end, ready to take what he called the official party picture. He was using a digital camera, some new toy he'd found that could be hooked up to his Macintosh. His plan, he told Kate, was to take a few shots, call up the images on the computer monitor, and print a copy for each guest. But the animals weren't cooperating. Joel got off just one frame before a couple of the rowdier dogs, excited by the sight of all that food--or by the birthday hats clinging rakishly to the sides of their heads--broke free and ran around the blanket, trying to get at the cake. Things fell apart after that. Dogs howled, birds squawked, somebody cursed a broken videocamera. Then the Websters' dachshund had an accident under the billiard table.
A dog party. It was a classic Joel idea, Kate thought. Although she had joked about it earlier, she really did wonder what kind of impression this party was making on their guests. Kate Baker--born Theodorus, from solid working-class Greek stock--had never felt totally sure of herself in her husband's choice of neighborhood, a rich D.C. exurb with winding roads, flowering cherries, and mailboxes labeled with names that could have come from the passenger list of the Mayflower. She always had the feeling there were unwritten rules in force, rules that had never made it to the old row house district of Chicago where she grew up. Would the idea of a dog party seem funny to these people instead of just corny?
Kate had no idea.
Joel, on the other hand, never seemed to waste much time on questions like that. He was the only real nonconformist she'd ever met--a sixties student radical turned eighties entrepreneur turned nineties ... what? Socially conscious businessman? Neo-capitalist rebel? Kate didn't know what to call him. A lot of the virtues that her family had tried to drill into her from the day she was born--duty, eagerness to please, concern for appearances--didn't seem to interest Joel, and this fact about him, probably more than any other, intrigued Kate. She wished she could be so confident. It was her own stubborn sense of duty--as well as a need to get away from a mind-numbing conversation about Laura Ashley window treatments--that kept Kate downstairs with the pets when Joel and the guests began to wander up toward the drinks table. Even though Joel had promised to do the cleaning up, Kate decided to stay behind and deal with the three-legged Chihuahua, the macaw who bit, the mess. Not that she minded much. Kate generally liked animals better than humans anyway, and she felt that Joel deserved some indulgence right now. He'd been putting in brutal hours at work for the past month. There'd been a couple of freak currency fluctuations in South America, and now a huge order of Malaysian vanilla beans was missing somewhere in the South Pacific. Joel had been at the office until dawn three times in the last week alone. In Kate's opinion, getting tanked at a dog party was probably just what he needed.
After a few minutes, Kate managed to get the last of the canine guests out the back door and into the fenced yard. The macaw settled down, and the only cat invited to the party came out from under the sofa to lap up the crumbs left on the picnic blanket. Hermann--Kate and Joel's own twelve-year-old German shepherd, the birthday dog--sat in a corner, giving Kate a dark stare.
"Well, don't look at me. They're your friends," she said to him in her hoarse, raspy voice. Hermann cocked his head to one side, his ears flattening back against the thick black fur. He had such expressive ears, Kate thought. She could read his ears the way other people read human faces. "Okay," she said, "so maybe this wasn't a great idea." Hermann whimpered. He let Kate scratch him behind those expressive ears, then gave her a quick, forgiving nuzzle and stalked off to the garage for a nap.
Kate stopped in the bathroom to see if she still looked all right after her struggle with the dogs. Her thick, raisin-black hair was pulled back into something like a French braid, though now stray hairs sprang from her head at every angle, giving her a wild, frazzled look. That hair, along with her intense green eyes and long, slightly crooked nose--inherited from a legendary Macedonian grandmother she'd never met--made her look a little like a crazy fortune-teller, she thought. And the effect was only strengthened by the small comma-shaped scar on the outside end of her right eyebrow, a childhood gift from her toy-throwing youngest brother. It made one eyebrow seem shorter than the other, and gave her whole face an off-center tilt. Kate frowned. At least her dress still looked good. It was tight, gray wool, belted at the waist--the kind of clingy thing she never wore before coming east. She liked the way it helped to fill out her too-narrow hips. Deciding to leave the clutter on the picnic blanket for later, Kate went back upstairs and dove again into the noise of the party. Elena Drummond, her best friend, sidled up to her with a drink in her hand.
"Keep it under your hat, Kate, but I think there's something going on between Matilda Barnes and the Landons" weimaraner." Kate grabbed Elena's drink and took a taste, letting a drop of gin fall to the floor like a tiny glass bead. "I always told you that woman was a bitch," she said.
Elena laughed. She seemed to love hearing Kate curse, though she would never say an off-color word herself. Elena was the only neighbor that Kate felt totally at ease with, and the two were inseparable, despite the Fifteen-year difference in their ages and the even more extreme difference in their situations: Elena, Fifty-one years old and living alone in the house next door to the Bakers, had two girls in college and an ex-husband whose monthly alimony check would occasionally show up with smiling holiday pictures of him and his new blond wife. To hear Elena tell it, she deposited the checks in the bank and gave the pictures to her macaw to shred.
"So how's my husband acting?" Kate asked her, giving back the drink.
"Joel? As bizarre and charming as usual." Elena took a quick sip. "Why?"
"Just checking." Kate looked across the room at her husband. Joel was standing near the CD player in the den, talking to Wayne and Allie Webster. He looked young for his forty-five years--sun-streaked brown hair, a square chin, mud-brown eyes, and a definite hint of adventurousness in his grin. Still a decently sexy man, Kate thought, better than I deserve. "It's just that things have been lousy at work," she continued. "He seems ... I don't know, distracted lately."
"You worry too much," Elena said.
"Yeah, so you always tell me."
"And I'm always right."
Kate grabbed Elena's drink again. It was true that she was a worrier. There was no way she could be anything else, having been trained in worry from a young age. As the only daughter in a Greek family of seven, she'd had to look after four brothers and her father before she was even in her teens. Her mother, a tall, red-faced woman with ever-aching feet, would retreat into her bedroom most afternoons with a crossword puzzle and a magnum of cheap white wine. When her father came home from his job as a desk sergeant in the Chicago Police Department, it was Kate who had to have the meal on the table, the younger children bathed and in pajamas, the dog fed. Even years later, when she was a cop herself, she worried--about her widowed father's heart condition; about Vic, her partner, and his marital problems; about her brothers. She sometimes wondered if she hadn't left Chicago and come east just to escape this constant worry, to start over in a place where she could worry about herself for once.
Seeing an empty ice bucket on the drinks table, Kate excused herself, grabbed it, and pushed her way through the crowd. Her mind was racing now. It was at times like this--at a party, surrounded by the clever talk and laughter of her well-heeled Maryland neighbors--that she felt most self-conscious about her East Coast life. She remembered the parties her family used to give in Chicago. Their cramped row house with the sky-blue awnings would be overrun with screaming kids, gin-playing aunts, and dozens of off-duty cops drinking beer and eating homemade spanakopita off paper plates. Nowadays she gave parties like this--fancy affairs where people drank scotch and bottled mineral water and nobody would even think of bringing along a visiting cousin or a kid under sixteen. It still amazed her that she'd ended up in a place like Lewisburg. She'd come east to go to graduate school, to get away from cop work and do something better, worthier, something she could actually feel proud of. And Kate was proud of what she'd accomplished so far. She had her master's in social work and was counseling teenagers in the District as part of her early work toward a doctorate. Meeting and marrying a rich businessman wasn't part of her original plan, but it had happened. She couldn't help it if the people back home, especially her brothers, saw this part of her self-improvement as a little too convenient.
Kate went into the kitchen and put the bucket into the automatic ice maker. Her brothers. Even now, four years after leaving Chicago, she still found herself thinking about them, imagining their reactions to everything she said or did. She could just guess how they would roll their eyes at the thought of an automatic ice maker. "What's the deal, Katie," her oldest brother, Phil, would say. "Can't you be bothered to fill a few ice-cube trays?" The Theodorus boys--three of them still cops, the youngest a contractor just starting his own business--were always skeptical about Joel and his fancy lifestyle. They tended to see anyone with money, especially ex-hippies with money, as automatically suspect. So they gave her a hard time about him, and about her new life in general. They kept telling her that she was getting soft out here, making nice with JDs in her spare time, living in her big suburban house. They warned her that she was--God forbid--turning feminine on them.
"Right, feminine," she'd answered back one year over Easter dinner. "Is that what you call it when you stop shooting at fifteen-year-old kids stealing televisions?"
"Oh, excuse me," Phil had answered. "Now she's got enough money to buy TVs for all those ghetto kids. And give them jobs in communes." He'd turned to Joel then and said, in all seriousness, "Hey, no offense." Kate took the full ice bucket from the machine.
Outside, the dogs were barking raucously. Kate wondered how smart it was to let half a dozen dogs run free in a fenced yard. She went over to the kitchen window to check on them. A few dime-sized flakes of snow were starting to fall out of the twilit sky, sticking to the coats of the longer-haired dogs. The animals seemed agitated--overtired and cranky, like children who had missed their naps. She was glad Hermann had stayed inside.
Then, just as she was turning away from the window, Kate saw something moving behind the row of cedars on the other side of the fence. At first she thought it was a man in a brown overcoat, but the figure had disappeared too fast for her to be sure. Maybe it was a neighbor attracted by all the barking. Or a deer, though it didn't seem likely that a deer would come within a mile of those baying hounds. She watched the spot for a few seconds, trying to see into the shadows behind the cedars, but it--he, whatever it was--had already gone. Kate turned from the window and carried the ice bucket into the living room. The guests, who were making almost as much noise as their pets outside, were clustered at one end of the house, near the drinks and the music. Kate again looked over at Joel, who now seemed to be arguing with Don Fordham, the old college friend he'd taken on as a partner when he started his business--From the Rainforest Imports, Inc.--in the mid-seventies. The two stood off in a corner of the den, near the collection of Japanese prints. Joel had his hand on Don's shoulder and was saying something close to his ear. Don shook his head and looked uncomfortable, almost afraid. Kate was about to go over to them when Matilda Barnes plucked at her arm.
"A wonderful idea for a party!" she oozed, waving her drink. "And so nice for the dogs, too. They so rarely get together."
"Thank Joel for the idea," Kate shouted over the noise.
"I just love seeing them all together," Matilda went on. "And that weimaraner, who does he belong to?"
"Such a handsome, handsome animal."
Kate bit her lower lip hard. "Excuse me a minute?" she said. She took the ice bucket over to the drinks table and then made her way across the busy room to Joel and Don. Whatever it was the two men were talking about, their argument was over by the time she reached them. They stood gloomily side by side, looking in opposite directions. Kate thought of bookends. "Everything okay here?" she said as she took her husband's arm.
"Have you seen Jeannette?" Don asked, before walking away to look for his wife.
Kate pinched Joel's arm. "Hey, take it easy," she said. "This is a party. You're not supposed to beat up on the guests. What was that all about?"
She could feel the anger knotting Joel's arm muscles. "Our usual philosophical differences," he said. "Don's acting like an old lady again." Then he turned to her with a strange smile on his face. He slipped his free hand around her, grazing her left breast, and pulled her face toward his. "I want to fuck you later," he whispered into her ear, then bit the lobe, her earring clicking against his teeth. Kate felt suddenly breathless, ambushed. Joel quickly let her go and turned away, as if nothing had happened. Kate steadied herself.