Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense

By Joyce Carol Oates

(Mysterious Press, $24, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Joyce Carol Oates, who is now 78 and still going strong, is the author of numerous bestsellers among her more than 100 books in just about every genre: fiction, nonfiction, mysteries, thrillers, memoir, criticism, poetry, children’s books, plays, you name it. Oates has won an equally impressive list of awards, including a National Medal of Humanities, National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, National Book Award and PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. As if she weren’t busy enough, Oates also is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. Impressed yet?

What is this book about?

With echoes of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, Jack of Spades gives us an unusually prolific author (hmmm, does anyone else come to mind?) whose elegant mystery novels have earned international acclaim and earned him a boatload (and we are thinking Titanic-sized boat here) of bucks. But no one knows – at least, not at first – that Andrew J. Rush has a secret, dark and violent side, expressed in the writings by the pseudonymous  “Jack of Spades.” Then his luck changes, as Rush is accused of plagiarizing an unknown local writer and his daughter finds a Spade novel that leads her to ask uncomfortable questions. Soon Rush is thinking more and more in the mode of his evil alter ego, and another fine Oates thriller lays its cards on the table.

Why you’ll like it:

Oates is blessed with an apparently unlimited imagination and the strength and determination to get those imaginings down on paper so that we may share in them. But she is far more than simply prolific; she is an extremely talented writer as well. Here, she is having some fun poking at the pretensions of the literary establishment, but this book is not about inside jokes. It is a thoroughly engrossing thriller in its own right. At just over 200 pages, this book will fit nicely into your beach bag, and it will provide a little chill to counter the hot summer sun. You might well say that all work and dark play makes this Jack anything but a dull boy.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “A writer’s secret pseudonymous identity becomes a conduit for his murderous dark side in Oates’s sleek and suspenseful excursion into the literary macabre. For years refined crime novelist Andrew J. Rush—known to his audience as “the gentleman’s Stephen King”—has moonlighted as Jack of Spades, an author of violent pulp potboilers. When an unhinged reader brings a ludicrous lawsuit against him for literary theft, Andrew snaps. Motivated by what Poe called “the imp of the perverse”—a quotation from the Poe story of that name serves as the book’s epigraph—he begins acting increasingly like a character in one of his alter ego’s nasty novels. Oates has endowed her first-person narrator with the slightly affected speaking style and overconfidence of one of Poe’s monomaniacal protagonists. Although she nods to a number of Poe’s classic tales—especially “The Black Cat” and “William Wilson”—the story’s modern spin is entirely of her own clever invention. Readers are sure to be gripped and unsettled by her depiction of a seemingly mild-mannered character whose psychopathology simmers frighteningly close to the surface.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Oates has written a great psychological noir novel, which also serves as a homage to Stephen King (once shunned but now embraced by the literary establishment). Andrew J. Rush, a seemingly mild-mannered and irritatingly self-absorbed and smug author of mainstream thriller fiction, has begun to write (in a partially fugue state) disturbing and violent novels under the Jack of Spades pseudonym. But when Andrew is accused of plagiarism and his daughter begins to ask questions about Jack of Spades, his carefully compartmentalized life begins to unravel. VERDICT As this tour de force reveals, Oates is a master of bleak literary fiction and its (sometimes) poor relation, crime/noir fiction. Examining and delineating insanity, obsession, paranoia, alcoholism, manipulation, and murder, not to mention book collecting and writer’s block, this tale of suspense makes for another high-caliber Oatesian outing, displaying flair, noir sophistication, and King-like flourishes.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A mystery writer slowly becomes subsumed by his dark alter ego in Oates’ tale of literary madness. Andrew J. Rush has made a name for himself and more than a comfortable living as a successful mystery writer. He’s published 28 novels, and an early review even called him “the gentleman’s Stephen King.” But behind the happily married family man with three grown children who’s the favorite son of his small New Jersey town lies a secret, ultraviolent series of noir thrillers Rush writes under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” No one—not even his doting wife, Irina—knows about Jack: Rush dashes the books off in secret and sends them to a separate agent and publisher. Despite its grisly content, the series sells modestly well. Rush’s two worlds seem to coexist in parallel harmony until the day his daughter, Julia, finds a copy of Jack’s A Kiss Before Killing in Rush’s office and decides to read it. Soon after, Rush is hit with a bizarre plagiarism lawsuit from C.W. Haider, a local woman claiming he not only copied her ideas, but physically stole her work. In an enjoyable bit of metafiction, Oates depicts Haider as particularly litigious when it comes to the literary set: she’s sued Stephen King, John Updike, and Peter Straub, among others. While the mild-mannered Rush is merely indignant at being accused, Jack of Spades wants revenge, and so begins his slow descent into madness. With its homages to Poe, from “The Black Cat” to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the horror masters Jack of Spades so admires, this latest unsettling and chilling thriller from Oates does not disappoint.

When is it available?

This noir thriller is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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