Mystery Girl

  • David Gordon
  • New Harvest
  • 320 pp.

An overstuffed novel is both thriller and social critique.

When reviewing a novel billed as a mystery—especially when the word “mystery” is in the title—I’m always concerned I may give away too much of the plot.

Spoiler alert: I needn’t have worried. I don’t think I could give away the plot of Mystery Girl if I tried.

That is not to say that author David Gordon’s exercise in literary misdirection is without its pleasures. Far from it. I have rarely come across a writer in such command of the English language. Some of his sentences, characterizations and set pieces are things of beauty. There is a lot to be said for an author who starts his book with a woman telling her husband she is leaving him because he is lazy, content to mope through a series of menial jobs so he can continue to pursue his real passion: writing novels no one wants to publish.

He replies, from the heart, that he is far from lazy: “I’ve slaved away desperately my whole life. What I am is a failure.”

Every novelist with a chifferobe full of moldering manuscripts or an e-book ranking on that rivals the population of India will cringe at that scene. Gordon deserves a medal (presumably a Purple Heart) for writing it. Indeed, I may tuck that line away for a future marital squabble when, undoubtedly under the influence of single malt, I will be looking for some sympathy.

All seems lost for the husband, Sam Kornberg, when, desperate to prove himself more than a literary loser, he answers an ad placed by a private investigator who needs an assistant. The detective, a goliath grouper-sized sleuth named Solar Lonsky, wants Sam to find his lost love, Mona Naught. (I’m of the opinion that any woman named Mona Naught is probably worth the effort.)

As a private investigator Lonsky has several things working against him, not the least of which is that he suffers from agoraphobia – the fear of going outside. He apparently fell in love with the voluptuous Mona inside a mental institution where they were both patients. This is actually one of the novel’s more rational plot contrivances.

Occasionally, and briefly, tutored in the ways of private-eyeing by Lonsky, the game and wisecracking Kornberg soon finds he has a knack for the job.

The literary conceit of the amateur detective who somehow gets to the bottom of things is not new. But Mystery Girl is set in Los Angeles and failed writer Sam Kornberg is not Angela Lansbury’s best-selling Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.” It’s the venomous Angela Lansbury of “The Manchurian Candidate” who would have been right at home in this book. Sam finds himself mired in a case (or cases) involving apparent suicide, murder, betrayal, bizarre sex, pornographic underground films, black magic, Satanism, bestiality — well, you get the picture.

Or maybe not. Mystery Girl at times seems less a mystery novel than a self-indulgent riff on everything wrong with Los Angeles, the movie industry, publishing and the human race. Yes, there are missing women, gunplay, quirky characters named Milo and Zed and all sorts of unsavory thugs. But they, and the plot, are often subsumed by Gordon’s comments on Shakespeare, Stendhal, Balzac, Austen, Proust, Joyce and Kafka — to cite just a few of the names dropped every chapter. Kornberg and his friends are apparently experts on everything. Nobody likes know-it-alls, unless, of course, they are book critics. (Come to think of it, Gordon, through Kornberg, spends much of Mystery Girl being a book critic, with his pithy, and dead-on, comments on the state of modern literature.)

I think Gordon has two books here. One is a mystery; the other is a comedic spoof of America in the 21st century. The parody is the strength of the novel. Gordon’s wit and social criticism are priceless — at least until he introduces the porn and devil worshipers. But the satire detracts from what could have been a slam-bang mystery, forcing the author to resolve an interesting plot through wordy revelations provided by key characters. One wonders if Gordon thought he could lure devotees of mysteries and thrillers into listening to what he really wants to say (which is valuable) by combining genres. If he did, it really doesn’t work.

Bottom line:  There is a brilliant writer here who needs to tell a straightforward story rather than convince readers he is a brilliant writer.

Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at The New York Times and Forbes. His many front-page articles led the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. De Maria lives in Naples, Fla., where he writes thriller and mystery novels, is a film and book critic, and lectures on financial journalism. His first novel, Sound of Blood, and his seven subsequent novels, are available at

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