Mending the Moon by Susan Palwick is a murder mystery that is never solved, except it's not the how or who that goes unsolved, but the why.
When Melinda Soto, a sixty-four-year-old single mother from Reno, goes on a vacation in Mexico, she is the victim of an apparently random and inexplicable rape and murder. Her attacker is Percy Clark, a young Stanford graduate and resident of Seattle who was staying at the same resort. Although Percy makes it out of Mexico and back to his parents' home, his parents soon realize something is wrong. When the FBI begin investigating Percy, he drowns himself in a creek.
Both of these deaths occur very early in the book. The nature of the deaths is very clear, as is their chronology; from a forensic standpoint, there are no clues and no mysteries left. Only Percy's motives—and the internal dialogue that led him to go from a great student, athlete, son, and friend to a rapist, murderer, and suicide—are left unrevealed. For that reason, Mending the Moon should perhaps be described as a "death mystery," since the novel's focus isn't at all the act of killing or its motivations, but rather the force that death exerts upon the living.
The novel follows both sides of these morbid events. Palwick juxtaposes the loved ones who survive Melinda—particularly her adopted son Jeremy—with the story of those left behind by Percy. While Melinda is mourned, and her family cherished in the midst of that grief, Percy's memory is loathed: his family become pariahs and his parents fall apart. Both families struggle to imagine the final hours of their loved ones: Melinda the victim of a violent assault, and Percy of whatever dark thoughts possessed him.
Mending the Moon also has a third storyline. Percy and Jeremy are united not only by the murder, but by their shared passion for the comic book Comrade Cosmos. Comrade Cosmos is literally an everyman, utterly bereft of superpowers, just a regular human being . . . but with a passion for altruism. His only special ability is that he helps others unite in the face of the Emperor of Entropy—a cosmic force that cannot be stopped, personified as a whirling of galaxies whenever anyone utters his name. However, Comrade Cosmos unites communities not so much to stop the Emperor, as to deal with the results of his work:
Good folk, our enemy is only one, but we are many. He can wreck entire towns with the flick of a finger, but he has only ten fingers, and we have thousands, if we summon friends and family and even strangers to help us. . . . Together, we can repair the world. (p. 27)
The CCverse is the perfect parable for the characters of Mending the Moon, who are faced with the task of rebuilding their lives after the unexpected tears through them, just like a tornado rips through a town or an unexpected storm sinks a ship. As the comic book series is brought to life, it forms a constant reference point and focus for exegesis for the characters in the main storyline, who argue variously the points of view of the two main camps of Comrade Cosmos fans: Comrades, who believe in order, and Minions, who believe in the fundamentally unavoidable nature of entropy. As the Comrade Cosmos storyline evolves from one of general lore to a more specific plot, and as Anna, Percy's mother, discovers her dead son's Comrade Cosmos subscription, both families are able to perceive their losses and their individual transformations through the lens of the comic's narrative.
These two arcs—the alternation between the consequences of Melinda's murder and an exploration of the errata, lore, and fandom that surround the Comrade Cosmos comics—build the novel's message through a consistent layering of themes; principally, those of grief in the face of the senselessness of death, the mystery and ferocity of the universe, and the human power to overcome these obstacles by uniting and working to reverse the flow of entropy.
Of course, reversing that flow isn't always possible. The novel's title is a reference to Melinda's childhood wish to mend the moon, to fix the craters that mar its face. Such are the stories of Melinda and Percy: irreconcilable, finished, destructive, and destroyed. The only choice that remains, as Comrade Cosmos—whose father and sister are both seriously ill—already knows, is to pick up the pieces and move on as best as possible.
And that's what this novel is: the parts that come after death.
This book is so gentle, its characters so simple, that the violence in their midst—like the arbitrariness of the Emperor of Entropy—seems radically unfair. It is impossible not to sympathize with literally every single character, despite the fact that everyone has wildly different reactions to the deaths they must confront. Anna, Percy's mother, pretty much collapses; his father, meanwhile, stonewalls the world. Some of Melinda's friends console themselves with religion, while others are prepared to take murderous revenge. Jeremy is bewildered, left with nothing to hold on to.
Percy is undoubtedly the most tragic character of all: even though his personal viewpoint is never taken up, the enormous weight of what he's done falls on the reader. When Percy is found drowned in a creek, his dog still tied howling to a tree in the rain, "There is no note. There are no explanations. But the DNA is a match, and Melinda Soto's murder is officially solved" (p. 97). This gave me the sense that even Percy didn't understand what happened to him, as though he were a man possessed. And although I've never killed anyone, it reminds me of all the times I've said or done something horrible, only to be unable to understand, upon reflection, what motivated me to do so.
Melinda, meanwhile, is the most distant character. Although we're introduced to her through flashbacks, she never really seems alive on the page. She is entirely mediated through her death and the memories of those who survive her. This is what makes the book a "death mystery" and not a "murder mystery," since we can't neatly tie up Melinda's life; it's actually the reverse of that Aristotelian idea that a life can evaluated as good or bad only at its end, because life—having been lived among people—doesn't end when the body expires. The traces of life spiral out crazily as grief and regret and pain and anger in those who didn't want to see that life end at all.
What's most fascinating about the way the reader meets Melinda is how effectively it makes Palwick's argument against the mystery novel. Instead of fetishizing Melinda's death, we're encouraged to relive her life, to understand who she was, the idiosyncrasies of sixty-plus years rather than the anomaly of one night that led to her end. Melinda herself, in a flashback, explains the importance of this choice of emphasis to her book group, whom she forbids to read murder mysteries because they are "fundamentally dishonest":
I don't want to read about people dying horribly, especially in books that aren't supposed to be serious. . . . Those books turn senseless, violent death into a puzzle with a neat solution: once you've caught the murderer, the puzzle's solved, and the world's safe again. (p. 75)
A lot of what happens in this book could easily come off as trite or over-obvious, and there is ample opportunity for cheese. What I think makes this book so fantastic is the combination of its two story lines: one an obvious parable for the need to persist in the face of evil, and the other a simple story of the difficulties of persevering in the face of the unknown. That might sound like even more cheesiness, but really, it elevates the book almost to the level of the sacred. The book refers quite frequently to the faith of its characters, the way they reconcile their view of a good God and the kind of death that befalls Melinda (and the kind of evil that was perpetrated by Percy), but it isn't forcing us into some kind of doctrinal battle. Instead, it points toward the moral questions we absolutely cannot answer. There's no solution to the murder mystery because there's no solution to the problem of murder in the first place; what's more, there's simply no way for us as finite beings, trapped in our consciousness, to fully grapple with the sense of the infinite that surrounds us and the limitless cosmic energies that assail our ridiculously small lives.
One of the risks of this story is the power inherent in the parable: the temptation of using it to explain everything, to reduce the world to a series of cleverly designed half-riddles. I was glad that, by the end, Palwick had made sure we didn't fully equate the stories of Comrade Cosmos and the Emperor of Entropy with the story of Melinda and Percy, because while the events that transpire in the comic book are the work of a force of nature, Melinda's death is the result of human agency. The kinds of death that can result from one and the kind that results from the other are radically different: we can't accuse the universe of being evil. Everything we live is so deeply embedded in its context that to extrapolate to the universal level fails to make any sense to us at all. Personal evil, on the other hand, is vividly terrifying, but can't be written off in the same way. It inspires a desire for revenge rather than surrender.
Lacking as it does any science fiction or fantasy (besides the internalized fantasy of Comrade Cosmos), Mending the Moon is an odd fit for Tor. Although I can't see this book as falling into the tradition of speculative fiction, it will doubtless make you think. It is well worth reading for just about anyone, because it will remind you of how hard it is to answer so many of life's fundamental questions. In fact, it might just be that this book is very much needed in the midst of Tor's other publications: fantasy and science fiction all too often have the quality of the "murder mystery" that Melinda Soto abhors: death is fitting, death is fated, death is glory, or death is motive for revenge. It's good to remember that life is never as simple as a novel—or a comic book.
Ben Godby writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs, and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.