W. H. Auden loved detective fiction for the soothing inevitability of its narrative arc. An ordered world is disturbed by an act of murder. The person responsible for that crime is sought, discovered and punished. The world is returned to rights.
But the poet knew this reading was too simple; it didn’t govern all cases. Some crime novels do more than expose the guilt of the criminal. They expose the guilt in us all. They move from intellectual pleasure – whodunit? – to a metaphysical reckoning with human sin.
John Byron’s debut, The Tribute, starts as the first kind of crime novel but ends as the second. The first instance gives us the hunt for a serial killer in present-day Sydney – a monstrous aesthete who finds beauty in bodies disassembled with a scalpel to resemble plates from the Renaissance Urtext of human anatomy, Andreas Vesalius’s De Fabrica of 1543. The latter is a portrait of masculinity so toxic the ink almost fumes off the page.
In both cases, Byron diligently ploughs the furrow laid down by his genre predecessors. The Tribute’s default style is mid-century hard-boiled. Its setting is a sultry and beautiful city corrupt to its historical foundations – indeed, the primal crime scene of European presence on this continent – while the register employed by the novel’s murderer is familiar too: intellectually rarefied tosh designed to quarantine the criminal from the true moral squalor of their actions.
And all of it, from the torque generated by the novel’s two meshed narrative gears to the clever deployment of Sydney’s meteorological moods, is competently done. It can even be good, if nasty, fun. The problem lies with the novel’s larger ambition – its metaphysical wing.
The genre portion of The Tribute, obedient to older rules, is essentially masculine. Its more reflective sections foreground female experience and are feminist in implication. But while the author labours to integrate live issues regarding, say, domestic violence, into the frame of the novel, the larger structure remains durably and intensely blokey.
The result is a work that, in its efforts to expose collective sin – the contours of patriarchal power as it unfolds in everyday life – reinforces old structures of thought and feeling. Byron’s men are monsters; they repel the reader. Yet the house of crime fiction was built to accommodate creatures such as them.
Affirm Press, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 17, 2021 as "The Tribute, John Byron".
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