Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: Michael Dibdin's THANKSGIVING

This week's Forgotten Book is that spectacular work, Thanksgiving (2000),  by Michael Dibdin, who is justly famous for his crime novel series featuring Aurelio Zen (made into a PBS Masterpiece Mystery series).

Thanksgiving is a crime novel too, one of the most intelligent literary murder mysteries in existence.  The writing is extraordinary, the narrative by turns raunchy, crisp, ethereal, understated, and witty--the ending tender.  The tale is told by an endearing narrator whose reliability must be redetermined again and again as the novel progresses.

It is just 182 pages with lots of dialog, a quick read, yet one that expands after it ends, becoming much larger than the sum of its parts.  Its most lasting themes are forgiveness and thanksgiving, even if you don't know to Whom you should be grateful.  Gratitude as an attitude.  Heck, even Christopher Hitchens said his favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. 

This is more of an analysis than a review, and there are definite spoilers ahead with examples of the prose style. The best way to experience this magnificent novel is completely cold, free of any expectations. So if you're looking for a peak reading experience, stop reading this now and go buy the book.

The book is dedicated to Katherine, who is undoubtedly K. K. Beck, the mystery author Dibdin fell in love with on a trip to a writers conference in Spain--and whose witty wordplay with the author may actually be featured in the airplane section of the novel.  She became Dibdin's last wife and widow.  It makes you wonder how much of this is autobiographical, at least in a figurative sense.

A murder mystery and a Thanksgiving story too?  Just wait.

The opening section is entitled "Lucy In The Sky" which conjures up the Beatles song but also has ethereal implications concerning the narrator's late wife, Lucy.  The protagonist longs for his wife so much that his world has become as empty as the desert highway landscape in the opening of the novel.

Suddenly a light looms up ahead in the darkness.  As he gets closer, the light transforms itself into the misty form of a sexy woman in bright lights, a modified neon sign attached to a high tower advertising a desert cafe.  This tower represents his wife's material history before they met, and it is owned by her first husband.  The two men then engage in a heated and raunchy discussion of Lucy, the dead woman of their respective dreams.

The first section is a two man duel in British/American dialog on the order of Sleuth, and indeed that's what the first part of this novel resembles. Take your pick, the Michael Caine vs. Lawrence Oliver version or the Jude Law vs. Michael Caine remake. It is murderously ribald here and full of twists and turns.  It will have you wondering which man is the more compulsive stalker, the greater psychopath, the more self-destructive.

There is an ominous bit about Chekhov's gun too, and the complete lyrics of the stalker/obsessive Van Morrison rock song, "Here Comes the Night," are given--something that is reprised for symbolic effect later in the novel.

Go get yourself a copy of this wonderful book, and read it before Thanksgiving.  Don't read on.  I'm going to reveal the ending.  Draw the line here:

Well, if you're still here, I may not have convinced you.  So, first, some examples of the writing style.  His neighbor offers him her condolences on the death of his wife:

"I know it's hard to accept, but it must be God's will," Allie concluded, heading back to her own porch.

Allie was a fundamentalist Christian of some variety who frequently mentioned God in a casual, highly resigned way, as though He were CEO of the company in which she was an underpaid, put-upon secretary.

 Such tidbits of social commentary abound in here.
Dibdin dealt in humor rather than comedy.  The dirty jokes traded between husbands in the first part of the novel are openly macho, meant to be sadly humorous rather than comic, but to judge by the reviews around web, some reviewers dismissed the novel for its male crudeness then and did not finish it, while others thought that the first section was the only strong section of the novel and that it went downhill from there.

How could they so misunderstand this masterpiece?

Listen, the first section is the animal id of the novel, not the spiritual heart.  Lucy's first husband "loved" her only in that possessive, material way that sadly passes for love in the hardcore capitalistic culture of these United States.  Which is why he can only talk about her in a misogynist, sexual way.  Which is why he is obsessed with all those old movies and nude photographs of her.  The stalker's obsession is not love.

The protagonist, on the other hand, loved her.  The high point of the book is not the macho pissing contest in the first section; the high point of the novel occurs on page 160:

I had not loved Lucy for those things, which might still consolingly linger on in some archive of photographs, videos or tape recordings, but for something that could not be captured and had now vanished forever.

I had never really been that interested in seeing pictures of the twenty-year-old Lucy, or in finding out what she'd been like in bed then, or even speculating about the children and the life we might have had together if we'd met decades earlier.  That wasn't the Lucy I was grieving for; it was the one I had fallen in love with, just as she was, no substitutions accepted.

So now we can see what the narrator has been telling us through the symbols and nuances.  That he has been so shocked by her unexpected death that it has taken him some time to find his way back to coherency.  The question of murder fades into the past along with the psychopathic first husband, revealed as a trick of the mind, a self-destructing McGuffin unable to outdistance love, forgiveness, and gratitude.

The end has the protagonist agreeing to make Thanksgiving dinner for Lucy's daughter, Claire, and her son, Daniel, even though he knows little about the American celebration of Thanksgiving.  He makes his way through the awkwardness and the pain.
Remember that indelible scene from the 2011 George Clooney movie, The Descendants, where Clooney hugs his soon-to-be-dead wife and says, Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joyGoodbye.

The ending here is a bit like that, but the novel's last words are words of Thanksgiving:

"...I'm talking to someone I don't know who isn't even there.  Thank you, I'm saying.  Thank you for Lucy, thank you for Claire and for Daniel, thank you for this cold and this blood and this pain.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you."

Hey, you can see this week's other Friday Forgotten Book selections at the Pattinase Blog at this link.


  1. Dibdin was a spectacular writer. He died too young.

  2. I agree. Didbin is always a great read. Also wanted to respond to your comments on my blog, but I can't get it to work. I can't get the reply to work. Wanted you to know I appreciated the comments and will respond when I can get my blog comment section to work. You have a great blog and will be checking in frequently. Best, Ron

  3. Thanks for stopping by, guys.

    For those who don't know, Patti Abbott is an author and blogger and it runs in the family, as she is the mother of the award-winning novelist, Megan Abbott. Patti's blog is

    Ronald Tierney is the author of several interesting-looking novels whose compelling blog I have just recently discovered. I'll soon be reading his Shamus-nominated P. I. novel, STONE VEIL. His blog is here: