Cam Winter’s Discontent

REVIEW: ‘The House of Love and Death’ by Andrew Klavan

November 26, 2023

Two years ago, Mysterious Press published a novella by Andrew Klavan, When Christmas Comes: A Yuletide Mystery. I always enjoy Klavan, but I particularly relished this book, not least for its beguiling protagonist, Cameron Winter, who (as a very young man) served in a shadowy U.S. intelligence agency, an experience that left him with a burden of guilt and moral confusion. When I finished it, I found myself hoping for a sequel, but that seemed like a longshot: In a note at the end of the book, Klavan thanked the crime fiction supremo Otto Penzler, head of Mysterious Press, for suggesting that he write a novella for the Christmas season, so it sounded like a one-off.

Happily, not long afterward, there was good news: A second Cam Winter book was forthcoming, a novel to be titled A Strange Habit of Mind, which duly appeared a year ago. And last month—on Halloween, in fact—the third book in the series was published, The House of Love and Death.

One of Klavan’s trademarks over his long career as a novelist has been his ability to blend surprising elements, like one of those world-class chefs who brazenly combines ingredients you would never expect to find in a single dish—and the result is as delicious as it is improbable. You can see this in The Uncanny (1998), for instance, one of the most grievously overlooked novels of the last quarter-century; and Werewolf Cop (2016), the title of which alone is sufficient to make the point; and the Another Kingdom trilogy (2019, 2020, 2021), in which a thirtyish screenwriter toggles madly between Hollywood in our own time and a quasi-medieval alternate reality that definitely wouldn’t meet with Tolkien’s approval.

The four strands, so to speak, in each Cam Winter book include his early life, up to the end of his service practicing the dark arts for what is supposed to be the greater good; his current identity, in young middle-age, as a professor of English in the Midwest (itself woven of two incongruous strands: his unabashed love for literature and the setting where he is employed, subject to the madness that has overtaken the university in our time); the "case" that draws his unofficial attention in this or that particular instance, the unfolding of which constitutes the main action; and his sessions with his therapist, Margaret Whitaker, 67 at the time of The House of Love and Death, a woman of exceptional intelligence and insight, but believably so, not granted superhuman powers (she is by far the most compelling such character I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction). Spelling out this recipe helps us to appreciate just how deftly Klavan does his job, because in the midst of reading we’re not likely to reflect on the sheer incongruity of the elements he’s chosen to weave his tales.

The phrase that serves as the title for the second of the Cam Winter books is a leitmotif in the third. "I have a strange habit of mind," he says to a woman named Gwendolyn Lord (I hope she will reappear in a forthcoming book in the series). "Stories that don’t make sense obsess me. Sometimes if I think about them the right way, they suddenly do make sense." In this instance, the story in question is one he comes across by chance, a grisly, enigmatic bit of news such as we all encounter on our laptop screens: "Firefighters discover murder house." In Maidenvale, a (fictitious) "wealthy suburb" near Chicago, four bodies have been discovered by firefighters; police say the four—husband and wife, their 16-year-old daughter, and the 25-year-old live-in nanny of their 7-year-old son, who was alive outside the house, unharmed—had been shot and killed before the fire was set.

"Winter was normally a man of even temperament," we’re told, "but … [w]hat he called his ‘strange habit of mind,’ his relentless immersion in certain criminal events, was relentlessly tugging him into the world of these Maidenvale killings." Soon he is onsite, looking into what happened, a self-appointed investigator (his cover story is that he wants to "write an article" about the crime; he is an English professor, after all).

The unfolding inquiry is at once intensely personal (it leads Winter into the private lives of the principals and those close to them) and "social"; as in the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, for instance, we get a fresh and many-layered look at this moment in time, at the forces that are shaping our collective lives: the corruption of power (police on the take); the ready availability of spirit-deadening pornography and other ills not created by but greatly magnified by new technology; and much more. At the same time, in the story of one of the victims, the nanny, we get a realistic sense of saintliness in action—because goodness is real, not a mere fantasy, pointing us to a greater Goodness that speaks to our deepest hopes.

If you think you just might be interested in The House of Love and Death, check out John J. Miller’s October 30 podcast conversation with Klavan. Unlike the average podcast, which (to my taste) goes on for far too long, Miller’s conversations with writers are blessedly concise and yet entirely satisfying. Near the end, Klavan says he hopes to keep writing about Cameron Winter: 10 books in all! (He’s just finished writing #4, he tells Miller.) May it be so.

The House of Love and Death: A Cameron Winter Mystery
by Andrew Klavan
Mysterious Press, 312 pp., $26.95

John Wilson writes about books for First Things, Prufrock News, National Review, the American Conservative, and other outlets.

Published under: Book reviews