HABEAS CORPUS

As it has visited so many of our traditions, inflation has inflicted itself upon the mystery novel.

Back in the days when phone calls cost a dime – hence the wonderful whistle-blowing expression “to drop a dime” on someone – gas was under 50 cents a gallon, and a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint cost a nickel, the mystery writer needed only one well-placed murder. Were she alive and writing today, Dame Agatha Christie would have to call in several other characters to bite or otherwise ingest the bullet. “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” would be transmogrified into “Who Killed the Ackroyd Triplets?”

Indeed, inflation has brought the serial killer into the literary equivalent of free agent status, with amateur and professional detectives left to ponder the dynamics of serial killers who prey on other serial killers. Nevertheless, mysteries, with inflated body counts, continue to appear – and continue to be read with avidity.

From time to time, another sort of mystery appears, detecting, delving, pursuing an even deeper puzzle than the mere whodunit of detective fiction. These range even more existential than the non-Inspector Maigret novels of George Simenon, in which the quarry is not the who in whodunit but rather the why. We already know who; now we pursue the trail to find out why. As a bonus, we get the delicious excitement of wondering what small detail will in the last analysis lead to the murderer’s downfall.

Splendid as such pleasures are, they pale in comparison to the mysteries and pursuits ambient in the novels of Richard Powers, whose quirky curiosity leads us on mysteries where the bodies are inevitably aspects of the aggregate human condition.

I was first drawn to the imaginative scope and speculative landscape of Powers’ 1991 novel, “The Gold Bug Variations,” which in many circles became the novel of the year. The title, with its punning reference to a work by Bach and yet another by Poe, speaks to the antic and feverish energy in this investigation of molecular genetics, music, and love.

His latest, “The Echo Maker,” from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is every bit as energetic, quite likely to catch you up in its slipstream, causing you to wonder not only who the characters are but as well who you are. Let us stipulate then that “The Echo Maker” will cause you to think. It will also cause you to experience a number of moments best described as humor, as in the case of one of the lead characters, a distinguished scientist in the field of cognitive neurology, overhearing the payoff of a joke told by a group of farmers over their breakfast at a restaurant in rural Nebraska. (Omaha to the contrary notwithstanding, is there anything other than rural in Nebraska?) What happens when a bug eats another? Non compost mantis.

In addition to the scientist, thousands of migrating cranes, and Daniel, a remarkable bird watcher, there is 27-year old Mark Schluter, a college drop-out and automotive buff who under mysterious circumstances manages to flip his custom truck on a particularly straight stretch of road that had little or no traffic on it.

Schluter has to be torched out of his totaled vehicle, rushed to intensive care. A severe trauma to his head indicates the need for surgery. Hearing of his ordeal, Karin, his sister and only close relative, reluctantly returns to care for Mark. The extent of his injury puts stress on Karin’s job to the point where she is told that she has a choice to make. Quite naturally, she chooses caring for her brother, but when he emerges from his prolonged coma, he believes that this woman who looks and acts like his sister, even appears to know remarkable details of his youth, is an impostor.

In dogged despair, Karin seeks the help of Gerald Weber, a cognitive neurologist and famed author who, intrigued by her description of symptoms, sees the possibility of yet another book. Not long after Weber sees Mark in action, he makes his diagnosis – Capgras syndrome, in which the stricken individual’s primary delusion is that an impostor has replaced a close relative or friend. After a few days or interview and note taking, Weber returns home to prepare for a promotional tour of his latest book.

Weber is undoubtedly based on Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author of such works as “An Anthropologist on Mars,” “A Leg to Stand On,” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” all works dealing with identity and cognitive anomalies. But the character of Weber has greater depth than merely being a sound-alike for a famous author and Powers is too adept to settle for one dimension. A number of the reviews for Weber’s new book are hostile enough – and probing enough – to undermine Weber’s own sense of identity.

While Weber is on his promotion tour, Mark is released from the hospital, becoming more suspicious about a number of things in his life, including his growing concern that even his dog, Blackie, is an impostor.

While Mark was in surgery, a note appeared in his intensive care room:

I am No One

but Tonight on North Line Road

GOD led me to you

so You could Live

and bring back someone else.

Convinced this could be a clue to the causes of Mark’s accident, Karin tries to discover the author of the note. As his recovery progresses, Mark joins the process, looking for clues to the identity of the person who was responsible for his rescue.

“The Echo Maker” begins:

Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down,

slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in

kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus canadiensis

settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats,

grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting, the advance wave of a mass evacuation.

More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.

Into this section of Platte River country, Mark Schluter drives his truck, speeding on some unknown mission along this straight road, swerving and flipping over, sending this mass evacuation of birds back into the sky, fearful of this intruder so precipitously come into their midst.

Mysteries of purpose and identity leave their puzzling calling cards for all the players, Mark, Karin, Daniel, Weber, and three of Mark’s friends. Weber, himself, discovers such a mystery as he waits for sleep to come to him, next to his cherished wife, Sylvie.

She fell asleep in minutes. He lay in the dark,

listening to her snore, and after a while, the snore turned

for the first time ever in his ears, away from an intimate rasp,

like the creak of the bed, into the shush of an animal,

something trapped but preserved in the body, vestigial,

released through sleep by the pull of the moon.

It cannot be easy to be a writer such as powers with the details of insights appearing as small gifts everywhere, incessant, sometimes even blinding in the relentless pursuit of identity and meaning that reside within the human condition. Nor is it always easy to read Richard Powers, but it is always rewarding.