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Donald Friedman
Corrupted Humours, a Novel
Corrupted Humours, a literary mystery told in two braided narratives, opens with the unexplained explosion of Albert Snaedeker, a psychiatrist, on the operating table during routine surgery. His cousin, an oil heir and publisher of Angle magazine, pressured by Snaedeker’s sister, assigns his reporter and sometime novelist, Owen Berk, to investigate. Berk not only pursues the whodunnit, howdunnit questions but, intrigued by the bizarre death and the people surrounding it, turns them into characters in a new novel. In it, Snaedeker’s surgeon’s depressed wife has an imagined flowering when she is indoctrinated into the world of S/M. We read Berk’s novel in alternating chapters with the framing novel, uncertain of the interior novel’s relationship to the larger narration, until they converge and Berk falls in love with the now-divorced wife of the surgeon, wondering how much of his passion is for her, how much for the fantasy figure he has turned her into.
Friedman’s layered novel combines humor and two distinct narratives into a single convoluted mystery. In the first story line, struggling novelist and journalist Owen Berk investigates the untimely death of esteemed psychiatrist Dr. Snaedeker, who had a gastrointestinal condition causing him to produce excessive amounts of gas. Snaedeker exploded on the operating table during routine surgery performed by renowned surgeon Bill Spencer. In the second, which seems to be both real life and a novel Owen is writing, Charlotte Spencer, Bill’s wife and Snaedeker’s patient, grapples with the realization that her husband has been cheating. The stories begin to intertwine as Owen tries to figure out whether Snaedeker was murdered and the Spencers veer toward divorce.

Snaedeker’s medical condition and death are mined somewhat for comedy, but they take a back seat to the drama in Owen’s life and the turmoil within the Spencers’ rocky relationship, particularly the physical abuse and mental manipulation that both Snaedeker and Bill inflict on Charlotte. Unfortunately, the stylistic choice to leave quotation marks out of dialogue (“She said, they’re chocolate, your favorite. I said no thanks”) makes it very hard to follow the events; Owen’s first-person narration blurs into his conversations with others, and scenes with multiple characters are especially difficult to untangle, greatly diminishing the tension.

Nuances of character elevate the story. Owen, a man in his “stream-dribbling sixties,” is somewhat obsessed with aging and death, a trait developed through his relationship with his 20-something girlfriend, Kjirsti, and his role as unofficial caregiver to his 92-year-old neighbor, Basha-Rose. Charlotte experiences a masochistic sexual awakening that helps her both make sense of and defy being mistreated. These complex protagonists and their interwoven narratives create a distinctive literary mystery with a bent toward the philosophical.

Takeaway: This mystery will appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction and stories that examine the human condition.

Great for fans of Alexis Schaitkin’s Saint X, Suzanne Rindell.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: -
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: A-