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A Carnivore's Inquiry


A Carnivore's Inquiry

In fiction, a serial killer is typically a contrivance, even in
suspense novels about serial killers. Usually it's a means for an
author to set in motion a gruesome mystery and give the protagonist
something to do for two-to-three-hundred pages. There's a serial
killer lurking the shadows of Sabina Murray's second novel, A
CARNIVORE'S INQUIRY, who carries the evocative moniker William "Bad
Billy" Selwyn. Murray doesn't reveal him until the end, in a
remarkable anticlimax, but she mentions him repeatedly throughout
this messy novel, calling up his name to distract from the real
culprit of a ghastly string of murders.

At the center of this hubbub is Katherine Shea, a woman in her
early twenties who, as the novel begins, has just returned from
school in Italy. Before she even gets off the train from the
airport, she seduces an older man, a Russian writer named Boris
Naryshkin, and immediately moves in with him. Apparently, he is so
desperate that he doesn't even question her homelessness, her
motives, or her interest in him. It's the first of many events in A
CARNIVORE'S INQUIRY that strain credibility and compel readers to
scratch their heads in bafflement.

Vacationing in Maine with Boris, Katherine manages to persuade her
benefactor to put her up in a bayside cottage, after which she
invites a street musician named Arthur to live with her. A young
man named Malley, whom Katherine meets in a bar, eventually turns
up dead, his throat apparently slashed. And on the night Katherine
attends a concert, one of Arthur's bandmates disappears. Either
Murray wants us to know who the real culprit is from the very first
page, or she holds her readers in egregiously low esteem.

As Katherine hurtles forward through the novel, Murray exposes more
and more of her past, which grows increasingly and incredibly
sensationalized as A CARNIVORE'S INQUIRY progresses. As a child she
dug up her dead cat for company; as an adolescent she seduced the
son of one of her father's clients during a dinner party; later she
dropped out of school, more interested in sleeping with her
teachers than taking their classes; as an adult she fled her
father's private investigators across Europe, finally gaining
illegal entry into the United States via a stolen passport. On one
hand, this back story, unveiled incrementally, reframes Katherine's
present-day exploits in more complex terms and with higher stakes,
which keeps readers on their toes and breaks up the longeuers of
academic regurgitation; however, it also makes the story more and
more ridiculous.

Murray also allows Katherine to expound at tedious length on a
variety of subjects, all of which pertain to cannibalism and all of
which intrude on the action of the story. Within ten pages, she
inserts a lengthy aside in which Katherine imagines a meeting
between Amerigo Vespucci and Cristobal Colón. Over the course
of the novel she retells stories of incidents as well known as the
Donner Party and the Mignonette and as obscure as the French spree
killer Martin Dummolard and the Australian outlaw Alexander Pearce.
Murray has obviously done her research; the problem is that she
obviously wants her readers to know how much research she has done.
At times she's overinsistent about the pertinence of these asides,
and other times they seem entirely too contrived coming from the
mind of a woman who admits to being a poor student.

It doesn't help that Murray writes in prose that sounds rushed,
reckless and underedited. In addition to numerous typos and long
passages of consecutive clunky sentences, A CARNIVORE'S INQUIRY is
riddled with misplaced participles. For one example of many, Murray
writes, "The night air was cold, but with no wind I found it
pleasant." Had she had wind, the reader is led to believe,
Katherine might have enjoyed it less.

All of this is unfortunate, as Murray showed such promise with her
previous book, a short story collection called THE CAPRICES, which
won the PEN/Faulkner Award. This follow-up, however, transcends
disappointment and achieves something closer to embarrassment.
Ultimately, with all the thoughtless prose, congealed story
structure, unself-conscious tedium, and pretensions about art,
mortality, life and cannibalism, A CARNIVORE'S INQUIRY is nothing
but schlock: readers may end up laughing at Murray, not with


Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on December 26, 2010

A Carnivore's Inquiry
by Sabina Murray

  • Publication Date: June 4, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802117694
  • ISBN-13: 9780802117694