The Writing Class delivers a kooky and spooky whodunit

The Writing Class

By Jincy Willett. St. Martin’s Press, 336 pp, $27.95, hardcover

Remember when you took that eight-week continuing-studies fiction workshop? Well, okay, so you’ve taken a few, actually. And there were all those wannabes in class, handing in abysmal sci-fi novellas, medical melodramas, and stories about cats. Nobody had your talent, plus their critiques of your work were irritatingly off-base.

But, whoa, that wouldn’t be grounds for murder—would it? In Jincy Willett’s novel The Writing Class, those usual suspects of the fiction workshop are all wittily present and accounted for. The next thing you know, they’re actual suspects in a perfectly kooky-spooky whodunit.

It’s worth noting that the author and her protagonist, writing teacher Amy Gallup, both have Web sites where they describe themselves as “an aging, bitter, unpleasant woman living in Escondido, California”. Amy, a loner who has “a more fulfilling and complex relationship” with her aloof basset hound than she had with her second husband, was a literary star at 22.

Several decades and scant writing later, she’s blogging lists of “funny-looking words” (disembosomee) and “novel hybrids” (“National Blue Velvet: Dennis Hopper does something unspeakable with Elizabeth Taylor’s ear”)—and teaching.

Like the dryly amusing Amy, Willett (author of National Book Award Winner) teaches writing too. She knows the book’s students well: with Dot Hieronymus, Dr. Richard Surtees, Carla Karolak, and (not the) Charlton Heston, plus nine others, we get a wicked-funny window into the souls of the semitalented, the desperately untalented, the pseudo literary, the writer’s-blocked, and the fiction-workshop-addicted.

Then bad things start popping up—a lewd drawing, a scary mask left in a car, creepy phone calls—and Amy perks up. “That one of their number was a malevolent and possibly unbalanced prankster was terribly upsetting to Amy, and also, she now admitted to herself, terribly interesting.”

It turns out Ten Little Indians set in a writing workshop is black-comic, tense fun. There’s a hilarious scene involving a very bad play being read aloud, plus Amy’s entertaining deductions about the murderer’s identity. And we learn that, ultimately, even writer-killers hate criticism: “You don’t know how to tell a story,” Amy tells the villain at the end. Fortunately, Willett does.