Karen Joy Fowler is well known for The Jane Austen Book Club, a quirky novel where each of Jane Austen's books finds an echo in the lives of its six main characters. (The novel was so popular it was made into a film, which I didn't enjoy so much, but that's another story.) I found Fowler's The Case of the Imaginary Detective at a book fair and being a big fan of detective fiction, I had high hopes for it. And for the most part, I wasn't disappointed.
The Case of the Imaginary Detective is the story of Rima, who after the deaths of her father from leukaemia and her very dear brother in a car crash, needs to crawl away from the world for a bit to lick her wounds. She is taken in by her godmother, Addison Early, famous for writing detective novels featuring the charismatic Maxwell Lane, which have been made into movies and TV series. Addison is a brittle, bristly and secretive woman, who is none the less kindly.
Addison inhabits a rambling house by the beach in Santa Cruz, along with two dachshunds and a recovering alcoholic housekeeper named Tilda. There are two visiting university students who help out with dog-walking duties as well as attempting, at Addison's request, to take Rima out of herself. Scattered about the house are doll-house models of the murder that takes place at the start of each of Addison's novels, some of which are particularly grisly.
But the underlying mystery of this novel concerns Addison's past, which she is quite tight-lipped about: her relationship with Rima's father, and their connection with Holy City, a religious community run by the autocratic William Riker, which was also the scene of a suspicious death. Then there is the mystery of why Addison named a murderer after Rima's father, and whether this was the cause of the rift in their relationship.
These mysteries are certainly intriguing and keep the plot ticking along nicely. Rima does a lot of snooping, in Addison's attic and at the now derelict Holy City, as well as on the Internet. She's not the daughter of a prize-winning journalist for nothing. In doing so she starts to come out of her shell. She begins to face up to her feelings for her family, especially her adored brother, and interacts more with other people. The ending is just as much about Rima getting her life back on track as the solving of mysteries.
I apologise if this makes the books seem altogether too worthy, because the whole thing is packaged in a pleasantly wry narrative style. The setting of a seaside town in winter adds a ton of atmosphere - a suitable canvas for the bunch of oddbods that inhabit it. And being rather fond of oddbods in literature, I liked this novel a lot.