I’ve always loved a good murder mystery so when I stumbled upon the description for Lynn Rosen’s upcoming A Man of Genius, the combination of promised mystery with the exploration of genius and morality proved tempting. What the description didn’t mention was the unusual narrative framing that provides additional fodder for consideration and analysis.
After the death of renowned architect, Samuel Grafton-Hall, his lawyers struggle to execute an unexpected codicil related to his will, the details of which must be read aloud to his widow, Elizabeth, and she must comply with them if she wishes to keep possession of Upuna Rose and the architectural forum of students and employees who live and work on its premises. Getting Elizabeth to cooperate proves more difficult than one would expect. The codicil pertains to another of Grafton-Hall’s properties, Hesperus’s Walk, where decades before his first wife, Catherine, had perished in an unfortunate fire along with two servant girls. As the novel unfolds, the circumstances of Grafton-Hall’s professional and personal life in the years leading up to that fateful fire are presented—through the biased lens of one of the architect’s longtime lawyers—and the tenuous truth of what happened at Hesperus’s Walk is revealed.
I wasn’t expected the embedded nature of the narrative structure and found it an intriguing way to tell this particular story. The central narrator—Arthur Dolinger—with his obvious biases thanks to his personal relationships with the tale’s central characters injects additional ambiguity into the story as it unfolds. Desperate for the friendship of such a prominent—if eccentric and difficult—man like Grafton-Hall, Dolinger’s interpretation is clearly affected by the character’s pronounced affection—unrequited though it may be—for the architect’s wife, Catherine. Dolinger is aware of his inadequacies as a narrator and provides additional information from either concrete sources or other’s accounts where possible but also emphasizes (frequently) how much of the narrative he writes is speculation.
What isn’t speculative is the examination of genius and how it is treated by society—as well as the double standards where men and women are concerned, and during the 1940s and 50s. As a man with prodigious talent and a reputation to uphold, Samuel Grafton-Hall is excused a great many of his eccentricities by those around him. He is constantly being sued for breach of contract when his projects go over-budget but refuses to amend his process, using the advances of the next project to fund his lifestyle and pay off the excesses of the project before. Despite the hassle this makes for his lawyers, the publicity he brings them is too valuable for them to do more than scold him. At the same time, the credit he receives for his designs is in part thanks to assistance from Catherine who has studied architecture and design in her own right and though she was lauded for her talent as a student, was turned away when she sought work in the field. She is able to help her husband translate his ideas into the blueprints necessary for physical execution. Desperate to hold onto even that small outlet for her creativity, she tolerates the cold treatment she receives from her husband who resents his reliance on her talents.
Though the novel’s progression is fascinating, I found its ultimate resolution to be a bit anti-climactic. There’s deliberate and effective ambiguity as far as the murder at the heart of the book is concerned—that works particularly well—but when it comes to the codicil and the tensions related to that, the ending fell flat for me.
A Man of Genius will be available for purchase April 11, 2016.