'True-crime' novel teases, fascinates

April 20, 1994|By Madison Smartt Bell | Madison Smartt Bell,Special to The Sun

"Gloria" is a novel about a man named Stone writing a book about a woman named Lauren writing a book about his (Stone's) nTC dead sister, who wasn't named Gloria, but called herself that, and who (as the reader will be relieved to learn) didn't write any books herself. Gloria, as a matter of fact, barely even wrote a postcard. She's a mystery wrapped up in a lot of different wrappers. In a work of this kind, the layers themselves are often of as much or more interest as the kernel inside, but Mark Coovelis' first novel doesn't entirely follow that rule.

Along with displaying its very complicated layers surrounding the central story, "Gloria" uses the basic plot hook of a true-crime narrative, e.g., "In Cold Blood" or any number of the drugstore variations that have proliferated since "In Cold Blood" first made the whole genre feasible.

Gloria herself is a murder victim and possibly a murderer herself, and Lauren's book about her, appealingly titled "Quick Blood," is a true-crime story (or, within the novel we're reading, it purports to be one). As in every true-crime story, what you want to know is not what happened to Gloria (since we know that she was murdered) but how it happened: the gory details. It's a direct appeal to your most prurient interest.

Stone, proprietor of a Berkeley bar and our somewhat self-consciously hard-boiled narrator, is looking over Lauren's shoulder while she works on her book, and is interested in whatever interests her. Lauren, who's taking a feminist approach to the true-crime story she's telling, means to exonerate Gloria, who's supposed to have participated in the killings of two other young women before she herself was killed by a wealthy but small-time ne'er-do-well named Tunney.

Stone has an emotional stake in seeing his sister's name be cleared. To add a further complication, he becomes, after a somewhat implausibly brief courtship period, Lauren's live-in lover.

Mr. Coovelis has been very ingenious in constructing this hall of mirrors. Tunney and Gloria were lovers; he certainly killed some other women before killing her and the public presumption is that she helped him. Were they necrophilics? Lauren, an academic whose interest in this whole subject has got to be at least a little exploitative, has a near-pathological obsession with knowing the exact circumstances that led to Gloria's death. Is Lauren a necrophilic? What about her lover, Stone? At any rate they seem to share the same dubious fascination in picking over Gloria's remains.

"Gloria" is set up in the style of a detective story that turns out to be about the detective himself. Here we've got two detectives, but Stone has the broader sphere of interest; he has to sleuth around Lauren too, trying to figure out whether he can trust her with either his sister's reputation or his own affection.

There are plenty of complications in Stone's past and in his present situation. But oddly, even though he occupies the whole foreground, he isn't all that interesting. His ruminations, his affair with Lauren, his fretfulness over his failed marriage and earlier family history, seem dutiful but passionless. It's as though Stone's author (Mr. Coovelis, remember him?) has been careful to observe all the forma of a novel that ends up being all about the narrator, when really his own center of interest is Gloria, too.

The curious result is that Gloria herself, the character who's most elaborately distanced from the reader, is the character who always seems most interesting and perhaps in the end most successfully and convincingly realized. It's an odd effect, to come to know her better than you know all those people who were talking about her. And she does, finally, have her secrets to reveal, surprising and dangerous enough to justify the multiple veils in which she's wrapped, all of that multi-authorial teasing.

The complaint to be made about "Gloria" is that it is often too self-conscious of its noir qualities, and so skates riskily near to the edge of self-parody. The true-crime element, which Mr. Coovelis exploits even more skillfully than Lauren does, helps prevent it from going right over, because Gloria's credibility as a victim is always intact. This is a book that lets you know you're being teased and manipulated, sometimes in a rather nasty way, but all the machinations are so adroit that the experience seldom fails to be fascinating.

Mr. Bell is writer-in-residence at Goucher College. His most recent novel was "Save Me, Joe Louis."


Title: "Gloria"

Author: Mark Coovelis

Publisher: Pocket Books

Length, price: 242 pages, $21

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