Sunday, November 17, 2013

Peter Abrahams' Oblivion: Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma

Reflection on the novel Oblivion by Peter Abrahams, published in 2005.  I read it on a Kindle.

Remember Churchill's description of Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?" Peter Abraham's Oblivion starts simply enough, but by the end -- Churchill didn't have enough synonyms to describe it!  But there is a key to unlock all the boxes, and the prize is worth having.

The novel opens with detective Nick Petrov giving dramatic testimony that convicts a murderer.  We learn that "drama" made him famous, first when he found the clue to end a serial killer's reign of terror twelve years before, and then when a movie was made about that investigation.   Before he's out of the courthouse parking lot, he's been hired to find a missing teenage girl.  He learns quickly that the girl follows a band called "Empty Box" that sings how you don't always know what's buried in your own backyard.  His investigation takes him places:  an airport hotel, a dive, a small desert town's high school, a nasty trailer, and his own secluded cabin in the mountains. 

Then the context for this whole investigation changes.  It's not a spoiler to tell that the headache nagging Petrov through the first chapters turns out to be an inoperable brain tumor that affects his body, his memory, and some aspects of his personality. A new intuitive sense of people replaces dispassionate reasoning.  The stern voice of his late father hectors him.  Self-doubt also changes him, and he begins to wonder how much of his "dramatic" career really has been play-acting and covering up. 

The missing girl case is one box inside a larger box inside yet a larger box, and one begins to suspect that there really are things buried in Petrov's own "backyard."  By the action-packed conclusion, Petrov is fighting not just for his life, but for his own sense of it: Is he really the good guy?

Author Peter Abrahams writes in third person, but keeps the focus tight on Petrov's perceptions.  The book is rich with distinguishing details about minor characters, but nothing extraneous to the puzzle.  When I used the "search" function on my Kindle to remind myself of one character who reappears late in the book, I recognized that Abrahams had planted clues to the true nature of this character from his very first appearance.

Petrov briefly partners with a dog, giving an intertextual thrill to readers who know The Chet and Bernie series written by Abrahams under the  pseudonym Spencer Quinn.  (See a compilation of my reflections on Chet and Bernie.) 

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