Joyce Carol Oates, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University for more than 30 years, continues to turn out novels at an astonishing pace. Oates, who now has more than 50 published novels, often probes the darker side of life. Such is the case with her newest work, Carthage (Ecco/Harper Collins), a murder mystery that goes beyond the realm of formulaic whodunits, thanks to a volatile mix of small-town gossip, capricious witnesses and family politics.
The novel opens one humid summer in upstate New York. Cressida Mayfield, an introverted teenager, has disappeared in the Adirondacks. When the case abruptly swings from “missing” to “murdered,” the local community is aghast. The leading suspect is Brett Kincaid, a disfigured Iraq war veteran and the ex-fiancé of the missing girl’s older sister. The evidence is incriminating: Cressida, a wallflower who never parties or drinks, was last seen at a rowdy lakeside bar in the company of Kincaid. The next morning the veteran was found passed out alone, covered in vomit, close to his bloodied car in a nearby national park, with no recollection of the night before.
Oates deploys a series of unreliable narrators, their memories of the crime muddied by varying degrees of alcohol abuse, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder. With only two eyewitnesses to the events of that hot, Saturday night in July—one missing and one scarred by his wartime crimes—it seems the truth will never be uncovered.