Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

I can’t quite recall when it was that Joyce Carol Oates hit my radar; but I asked around on the LibraryThing VMC group and several people had read her and there were interesting responses. So when her latest thriller, Jack of Spades, turned up on NetGalley (a place I’m just beginning to explore) I thought I’d try requesting it and see what I thought of Ms. Oates!

Oates has a long and interesting pedigree as an author; her Wikipedia entry reveals that she “published her first book in 1963 and has since published over forty novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She has won many awards for her writing, including the National Book Award, for her novel them (1969), two O. Henry Awards, and the National Humanities Medal. Her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), Blonde (2000), and short story collection Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories (2014) were each nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Oates has taught at Princeton University since 1978 and is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing.”

jack of spades

Jack of Spades is a short, sharp and scary novella narrated by one Andrew J. Rush; a middle-list, best-selling thriller writer, he specialises in well-mannered mysteries with a happy ending. Rush lives in a small community in New Jersey, has a wife and grown up kids, supports local charities and good causes and is a pillar of the community. However, the opening scene is a visceral one, with someone being attacked brutally with an axe, and it is soon clear that there is more to Rush than meets the eye.

For our hero has an alter-ego, and writes mysteries which are a lot nastier under the pseudonym of Jack of Spades. Initially, Rush plays this down, making out that it’s just a little sideline and that he’s slightly miffed, in a joking way, about how well Jack’s books sell. He, of course, is a paragon of society. Gradually, however, the cracks start to appear and it is clear that we are in the presence of a frighteningly unreliable narrator.

A further element enters in the plot in the form of C.W. Haider, a local woman known as a crazy who issues a suit against Rush for plagiarism; even though Rush claims never to have met the woman or know anything about her unpublished writings. The court appearance connected with this is enough to crack Rush’s civilised veneer and it becomes obvious that the picture of his life he’s presented to us is far from accurate; the perfect family man is nothing like that, there are plenty of secrets in his past and the less pleasant side starts to take the upper hand…

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To say any more would spoil the joy of reading this book, which is one of the best thrillers I’ve read for a long time. Oates writes brilliantly; cleverly sucking the reader in with the apparently nice and normal Andrew J. Rush, and then turning the tables. The narrative voice is utterly convincing and the gradual slipping of his persona quite chilling. In particular, Rush’s relationship with his wife is gradually thrown into relief as the story develops and her part in his life and work becomes much, much clearer…

Oates is also poking fun at the whole horror/thriller genre, with homage-style references to such authors as Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and of course Stephen King. The latter, in fact, features much in the book, almost as something of a plot device, and Oates can’t resist the odd dig; not only at the other authors, but also at the concept of authors writing books under different names, something she’s done herself.

This was a quick and wonderful read, and Oates is obviously an author of some power and talent; in fact, “Jack of Spades” has caused me to rescue two of Oates books from the charity donation pile as I’m now really keen to explore more of her work!

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley, for which many thanks.

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“Jack of Spades” is the second full e-book I’ve actually read, and the experience itself was ok; I can deal with the electronic turning of pages, the device is user-friendly and reading on screen is not too painful. However, I think if the book was anything more complex than a murder mystery I might struggle – I don’t find I engage in quite the same way with an e-reader, I tend to read it quite quickly and I found when I tried to read “The Voyage Out” on it, it just didn’t work for me. And from my (limited) experience of e-books, I really think that the people who produce them need to give serious attention to the formatting, as it’s often a complete mess….

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