Message in a Bullet by Owen Thomas breaks all of the rules, insisting that no genre is safe from the mind-bending nature of the human condition it is meant to capture.
Raymond “Mack” Mackey, can’t catch a break. After the tragic death of his wife, Mack is let go from his job as a homicide detective under mysterious circumstances, sending him spiraling into a dreary life of relative solitude. He doesn’t have much luck turning his old cases into crime novels, either. Set during a pointedly hot Chicago summer, Message in a Bottle sees Mack’s life descend into chaos when he finds himself at the center of yet another new deadly mystery; all the while, his past is coming back to haunt him. He must push through the ordinary constraints of his increasing age and the not-so-ordinary effects of his psychological disorder to claw his way towards the truth and clear his name. On one hand, the book comes complete with all of the characteristics that readers might want or expect from a crime mystery; Thomas clearly knows the rules of the genre. But, on the other hand, he refuses to stop there; Thomas’s brilliant use of language and his penchant for what’s beneath the surface sets the book apart from your standard detective novel. This straddling the fence between genre fiction and literary fiction lives to an unprecedented degree in the pages of Message in a Bullet. Its textual awareness is established, of course, by virtue of being a crime novel about a crime writer. But the funhouse of self-awareness is really brought home by Mack’s psychological condition, which causes him to experience his own life in third-person. Thomas doesn’t miss the opportunity to play with his stylistic use of point-of-view to bring this device to life. The book’s protagonist is eccentric and well-developed enough to carry the narrative along and ground the reader in its philosophical themes and twisting plot, both of which compete as one of the book’s standout features. In addition, the supporting characters are just as compelling and well-rounded. Thomas’s unique authorial voice shines through, which makes Message in a Bullet shockingly original regardless of genre. One could argue that the book does run the risk of appealing to the potentially narrow center of a venn diagram of crime readers and literary critics, but Thomas checks all of the boxes for each so completely that he’s far more likely to reach a broader audience. Message in a Bullet is as kaleidoscopic as it is fun and easy to read; it’ll leave you squinting for what’s just beyond the page.