The central premise at the heart of Lee Irby’s Unreliable is a fascinating one, and led me to believe that this would be one of the few crime thrillers I would actually like, a genre I usually find intolerably formulaic; namely, a failed mystery author and current college professor announces to us on page one that he recently killed his ex-wife, but then immediately follows that up with the confession that he might actually be kidding, promising a metafictional meditation on the act of genre writing and the nature of unreliable narrators, a taut psychological thriller in which we never know whether this guy is messing with us or not until the very end.
Unfortunately, though, Irby pulls a pretty big switcheroo as the book continues; for the more we read, the more we realize that this “did he or didn’t he kill her” shtick is simply a cheap gimmick designed to draw readers in, but that the story itself is nothing more than a character-based literary dramedy about a deeply flawed middle-aged son visiting his family and old hometown, and all the wacky foibles that happen within such a milieu, having nothing to do with murder whatsoever.Once you get past the premise, #LeeIrby's #Unreliable reads much like a witty #MichaelChabon tale Click To Tweet
That unto itself is not necessarily a terrible thing — once you get past the premise, the rest reads much like a smart and witty Richard Russo or Michael Chabon tale, benefiting from its deep look at the town of Richmond, Virginia right at a point when it is internally debating the future of the Dixiecrat-era Confederate statues still dotting the city — but when you were expecting a serious and dramatic crime thriller that doubles as a Postmodernist statement on the act of writing crime thrillers, as its dust jacket unambiguously promises (“Irby plays with the thriller trope in unimaginably clever ways”), the bait-and-switch on display here can’t help but to be a big disappointment, not the fault of the author but a problem clearly resting on the shoulders of the Doubleday marketing staff.
Now that you know the situation, you’ll be able to approach this book with the right mindset and enjoy it a lot more than I did; but do yourself a favor and shed any assumptions you might have about this being an actual crime novel.
Out of 10: 6.0, but 8.0 if you ignore the dust jacket