A second book in a series, like the second season for a great baseball rookie, can be fraught with dangers. So much on the line. So much that could go wrong.
But Andrew Klavan’s sophomore season with protagonist Cameron Winter puts paid to the sophomore jinx. “A Strange Habit of Mind“ doesn’t just match “When Winter Comes” in excitement, intrigue, puzzles, and suspense — it far surpasses the first one.
Perhaps because it hits right at the current political and cultural dangers we face. A tech billionaire for a villain, Gerald Byrne wants nothing more than to play God with the world he is remaking in his likeness with his ‘Good World Project.’
Perhaps because of hero Cameron Winter, an English professor with a past, armed with the poetry of William Wordsworth, yet violence is at his core. Perhaps because of Nelson, the real nemesis of Winter, trained as Winter was, also violent to his core, but lacking the words of Wordsworth at his disposal.
Perhaps because of all of these things, and more.
Klavan’s heroine is an ordinary, somewhat dumpy woman named Molly, with all the trappings of wealth and glamor, married as she is to Byrne, but at heart she’s just a wife and mother — a homemaker.
Or is the heroine Winter’s therapist, Margaret, who sees Winter for who he is, long before he tells her the stories of his past: “…what disturbed her more than anything was the violence in him” (15).
The narrator tells us, “Winter was a hard man at his core, harder than most people realized. His mild academic looks threw them off. They saw geeky sweaters and pullovers but missed the lethal control of the body underneath. They saw wire-rimmed glasses but never understood the cold eye he cast on life, on death” (39).
The reader must never be fooled by outward appearance. Later in the novel, Winter tells Margaret, “Brace yourself for more of this, Margaret …. We’re just getting started. By the time I’m done, you’ll have a whole mound of severed heads in your office, each with my name on it”(230).
Violence lies at the heart of this novel — Winters’s, Byrne’s, and Nelson’s — no matter where the plot or the people turn, whether in the classroom, the boardroom, or the bedroom. And the uncertainty of when and where the violence will certainly strike keeps the reader on the edge of her seat and the plot on the edge of a knife.
The prose itself is knifelike: clean, precise, cutting. Klavan wastes no words, uses no unnecessary metaphors or adverbs. His language swipes at us, and we must duck to avoid injury. And, I think, this is part of the novel’s suspense, that the language matches the plot. The adjective “lethal” is not gratuitous but essential, as is his description of Winter’s “cold eye” looking on life and death. The plot hinges in small ways and great on just those two things. Byrne holds them both in his hands, he believes, to dispense as he will.
There is so much to admire about this story, or should I say stories. “A Strange Habit of Mind” tells several simultaneous stories, each of a past life. The past life of Winter. That of Byrne. That of Nelson. And their pasts consist of violent acts and actions and people.
In the case of Winter, Klavan has chosen to make sure we know, using Italics, that Winter’s story is parallel to the main story, in Roman type. Stories within stories provide a richness and sophistication to what could otherwise be just a simple, straightforward detective story, which this is not.
There are also those passages that talk of the art and craft of making stories — of the necessity of silences, the necessity of certain words. When I read the passage about silences, I could only think of Richard Wagner and his insistence that the music was in the rests, the silences. So what, a reader must ask herself, are the silences in these stories, in Cameron Winter himself?
“A Strange Habit of Mind” will now turn two novels into a Cameron Winter series. And if Winter is the character he intends to write for a long time, could it be the silences in Winter are what allow this series to grow?
For despite the revelations in this book about Winter’s resourcefulness — albeit treacherous — we sense that there is far more to know about Klavan’s enigmatic protagonist.
Cheryl Forbes is Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She is the author of eight books on theology, philosophy, science, and memoir.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.