A complicated psychological thriller, and at the same time, a case study for marriage counselors, Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut connects murder and three marriages through the lens of an Escher work of art – drawing you in many directions at once, with perception and understanding just out of reach.
The story begins with David Peppin wishing that his wife, Alice, were dead; at first, he imagines acts of god – struck by lightning, falling off a cliff – then, he imagines his own rage killing her. Behind closed doors, their marriage is festering with pain. Alice, a former teacher, has become morbidly obese – Ross eventually reveals the reason behind this; David hides in the labyrinth of creating new products for his successful video game company. Escher’s art lines the walls of their home – inspiration for David’s games, and a Cassandra prediction for the marriage.
Wishes come true, and Alice, is found dead of anaphylactic shock at the kitchen table, an allergic reaction to the peanuts on her breath. Did her husband do it?Two detectives, Ward Hastroll and Dr. Sam Sheppard, embroiled in their own dysfunctional marital dramas – are called in to investigate, and Ross begins an intricate weaving of lives, stories, and relationships with lots of twists and turns. And the “peanut” has more than one meaning.
This is a long book, with lots of detours along the way: Ross’s elaborate description of the Peppins’ difficult hike up Kauai’s Na Pali coast, and the insertion of the character Sam Shepperd, who is now a detective on the Peppin case. This is the same infamous Shepperd who was convicted, sent to prison, and then freed and immortalized in The Fugitive (remember the endless pursuit of the doctor who insisted he had not killed his wife?).
In a flashback to Peppin’s college days, Ross offers an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock – the man, his movies, his obsession with blond heroines and food – making reference to the one of Hitchcock’s important film-making vehicles – “the MacGuffin”…
“…this is what gets the story rolling but then fades in importance after it’s introduced. Take 39 Steps. The hero, Hannay, meets a woman at a local London music hall who claims to be a spy hunted by assassins. They’re after her, she says, because she’s discovered a plot to steal British military secrets and something called, of course, the 39 Steps. She’s murdered that night in Hannay’s apartment, so he’s got to prove his innocence while racing all over Scotland and London trying to figure out the secret, which naturally has nothing to do with what the movie’s about. What it’s about is the hero and heroine’s struggle to trust each other. Which is the beauty of the MacGuffin, because once you learn what it is you can immediately get busy ignoring it.”
Eventually, Ross returns to the whodunit – who killed Alice Peppin? David Peppin has been trying to write a novel about his marriage throughout the story, with difficulty finding an ending. Remember the MacGuffin. Ross complicates the plot with entertaining distractions, which seem to not have much to do with the plot, but he also cleverly inserts references that lead back to his real story – the theme of love and marriage as the simultaneous states of comfort, ecstasy, and hate.
In a surprising finish, Ross will make you question everything you read – once you get it. When I realized what Ross had done, I had an “aha” moment.
If you like neat mysteries, with a few red herrings, that ultimately follow the trail to uncover the murderer, Mr. Peanut is not for you. But – if you like to get lost in a story that keeps you guessing, and makes you want to read it again to see what you missed – Ross will involve you with his wit and exhausting allusions.