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Murder in Mount Holly

by Paul Theroux

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Murder in Mount Holly by Paul Theroux
© Mysterious Press
Mysterious Press, December 2011

In 2010 Grove/Atlantic Press announced the reincarnation of Mysterious Press which had been founded in 1975 by Otto Penzler and which had quietly faded in importance as a publishing house. Among the treasures in their first list is the delightfully bizarre Murder in Mount Holly. It was Paul Theroux's third novel, well before he became the author of award-winning novels such as The Mosquito Coast and Picture Palace. He may be known best as the author of incredible travelogues, including The Great Railway Bazaar, which was the catapult that launched his career, Riding the Iron Rooster, and The Tao of Travel.

Murder in Mount Holly begins in the mid-1960s. President Lyndon Johnson is waging an unpopular war in Vietnam. Herbie Gneiss has been forced to leave college to support his hypochondriac mother who believes she is dying. Perhaps she is dying since she is a compulsive over-eater. Herbie finds a job at Kant-Brake (can't break), a factory which makes very realistic war toys. The factory runs itself as a military organization complete with an armed guard at the front gate who refuses Herbie entry when he first arrives to apply for a job. The owner of the factory is given the excellent name of General Digby Soulless, Retired.
Mr. Gibbon, whom he has met at his boarding house, is a veteran of three wars and helps him get the job at Kant-Brake. As is already evident, there is an element of humor that runs through the plot of Murder in Mount Holly, as well as through the novel's characters:

"Mr. Gibbon was a fuddy-duddy, not a geezer, but he was old, chewed his lips, dressed horribly and so often was taken for a geezer."

Through a variety of twists and turns Mr. Gibbon falls in love with Herbie's mother and invites her to come live with him in the boarding house. Chaos ensues. Gibbon, Mrs. Gneiss, and Miss Ball, who owns the house, decide to rob a bank run by a fellow who must be a communist since he has dark skin. They justify their actions as fighting for their country. Herbie cannot stop this lunacy because he is away fighting for his country, having been drafted.
Two policemen are captured, locked in the basement, and their uniforms taken. Their squad car is stolen, the insignia painted over then washed off so that the "robbers" can be arrested in their effort to get away. The bank is robbed and people die in an episode straight out of the Keystone Kops. An appropriate conclusion comes about, as only Theroux could imagine it.

The novel's themes of gluttony, lust, familial interactions, and war provide fodder for Theroux to practice his craft and comment on the other side of life. The situations and dialogue are often hilarious, invoking reactions that range from a simple smile to belly laughs. At the same time, Theroux allows us to see the pathos that pervades the lives of these people who believe they have lost everything and see themselves as disenfranchised. It is a parable that applies today to those who see the influx of non-Americans as eliminating jobs and opportunities for "real" Americans.

It is good to have this opportunity to read an early work of an author through eyes that have seen so many of his later works and see how the elements of his craft have developed. Murder in Mount Holly is a most entertaining read.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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