Last year, Max Barry’s novel Providence made my best-of-year list. Providence, a science fiction novel, follows a ship’s crew as it heads into the Violet Zone, deep space, as the battleship, on a search and destroy mission, hunts for Salamanders, a hostile race locked into a war in space with humans. Providence tackles big questions such as AI vs. human intelligence–both come with flaws. It’s been over a year since I read Providence and I still think about the book almost daily. Roll onto 2021, and it’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. When I first saw the name of Barry’s latest, the title seemed to have a playfulness to it–and I thought about that. ‘Murder’ isn’t playful at all, so the playful aspect comes from the name Madison May. The name is a bit stripper-ish, a bit actress-y.
The 22 Murders of Madison May is also science-fiction, a parallel universe novel. When the story opens, Madison May, a sweet, young real estate agent is about to show a home, a “dump.” Since she’s meeting the buyer, a man named Clay, alone, she takes his photo for “security.” Clay seems more interested in Madison than the house, and she begins to get bad vibes. There are horrible bite wounds on his arms, all in various stages of healing. He locks the doors, takes Madison’s phone and asks her to come into the bedroom to talk. Madison, who is a naturally perky person, decides that the best course of action is to humour Clay, at least until she can run, and after all, her office has Clay’s photo and all his information so “it would be crazy for Clay to do anything.”
Once in the bedroom, Clay tells Madison that he’s traveled from another world just to see her.
“All this …” He gestured to … the room, the curtains? No, no: the world of course. “It’s a drop in the ocean. There are more worlds. More than you can count. They look the same but they’re not, not if you pay attention. And you’re in all of them. Everywhere I go, you’re doing different things. Every time I leave, it’s to find you again.”
That day, reporter Felicity Staples is asked to cover a murder. That’s not her usual beat, but since Levi, the paper’s crime reporter is out, Felicity goes to the crime scene. Real estate agent, Madison May is the murder victim, and outside of the taped crime scene a man and a woman stand watching. The crime scene is bloody, and “the drywall had been carved open with thick slashes. There were five angled prongs crossing a circle.” What do the marks mean?
Felicity discovers that the “insignia” carved into the wall is the same insignia on a cap worn by man who was outside of the crime scene when Felicity arrives, but the police don’t seem interested in her tip. A little amateur detective work on logos leads her to The Soft Horizon Juice Company. From this point, things don’t add up: there’s a man, named Hugo, who should be in Sing Sing for murdering his wife, walking the streets of Manhattan. Just what is The Soft Horizon Juice Company and how is it connected to Madison’s murder? After being shoved off of a subway platform, Felicity returns home but there’s something off…. . She’s still a reporter, her boyfriend is still tried-and-true Gavin, but there’s something not quite right:
She felt off-balance. There was something wrong and she couldn’t figure out what.
Felicity inadvertently becomes mixed up in the hunt for a serial killer, but unlike most serial killers, Clay travels to parallel universes to kill the same woman. Over and over again.
So that’s enough of the plot. Max Barry’s entertaining novel is mind-blowing for those of us who love or believe in parallel universe theory. This could be a grim read, but the author seeds this with light touches. Felicity’s boyfriend is slightly different in each universe; sometimes better, sometimes not. As Felicity steps into and adjusts to, her subsequent new lives, parallel universe travel brings up some moral questions.
“There’s no time travel. You’re in a physically different place. It shares an ancestor with where you’re from, but at some point it split. Since then, it evolved independently.”
“You’re saying there are two worlds? A real one and a … a secret–?”
“Many worlds. Detaching and refolding all the time. Nothing makes one more real than the other.”
“Parallel dimensions?” she said, groping for a concept. “Is that what you’re saying?”
Another winner from Max Barry