Traditional mysteries generally present one murder, with maybe some additional deaths as the plot unspools. Thrillers generally offer a few more although most of those are collateral damage that most authors don’t spend too much time on. Those expectations go completely out when you relocate those genres into something as bonkers as Max Barry’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. There is one victim—as in most mysteries. But that one victim lives in multiple realities that the protagonists (and the killer) can jump to with the use of a not-explained doohickey. That’s when the thriller part kicks in; characters move from one universe to another in a dizzying and deadly game of chase.
Although Madison May gets top billing in the book title, Felicity Staples spends more time in the spotlight. Felicity is a politics reporter at a small newspaper that’s just hanging on. She definitely doesn’t do crime reporting—at least until a call comes in when the guy whose job it is is out and there’s no one else to do the reporting. The call is for the grisly murder of a real estate agent in an open house. There’s not much of a mystery. Due to security precautions, the cops know who did it and even have a photo. No one knows why Clayton Hors killed Madison May. Not until the plot really gets rolling and characters start to muck around in the multiverse.
There’s a lot of that’s not explained in The 22 Murders of Madison May: the universe-travel doohickies, what the shadowy organization that’s following Madison and Clayton is all about, plus a whole lot of downstream effects of universe-jumping. There are also a lot of things that aren’t developed: many of the characters are a bit on the stock side, the plot is a runaway train, plus a whole lot of potentially interesting downstream effects of universe-jumping. I usually don’t complain about books being too fast. But this book is too fast. I saw quite a few places where Barry could’ve played around more with possibilities. To his credit, there were some places where Barry let the characters pause for breath to think about whether or not jumping worlds has potentially fatal consequences for their other-selves. There just aren’t enough of them and the ones there are don’t go far enough.
It also doesn’t help that I’ve seen these kinds of do-over/multiverse plots before, and done better than Barry has managed here. (I’m thinking of The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton.) I know authors have to be careful about what they read, so as not to be accused of plagiarism, and that it’s impossible to read everything that comes out—so I can’t really blame Barry for not knowing about other books that might bear similarities to The 22 Deaths of Madison May. And I do feel a bit bad being this negative. Unfortunately, I have to say that if you’re interested in imaginative mysteries that give the protagonists to try and change history, I have other recommendations for you.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.