An abandoned sofa and a grisly find set the action in motion in the latest work from Edmonton author Wayne Arthurson. In a sharp deconstruction of the conventions of the mystery genre, Arthurson uses prose poems to tell the story of M, the proverbial everyman who finds himself embroiled in a police investigation.
M is a hero of a different ilk than the hard-boiled journalist of Arthurson’s Leo Desroches series: a bylaw officer, he is a man whose business is order. While he is responding to a complaint about a yard sale, a red chesterfield left in a ditch catches his eye. M examines the torn-up sofa and discovers a shoe, complete with a severed foot still inside, and his carefully ordered world begins to spin out of control.
Overturning the typical genre plot structure, in which a violent crime occurs and the detective works his way toward solving the case, the dismemberment is not the central plot point in Arthurson’s story. It is not the mystery of the severed foot that M becomes obsessed with solving but rather the appearance (and subsequent disappearance and reappearance) of the eponymous piece of furniture. As M navigates the aftermath of his brush with horrific crime in an attempt to discover the provenance of the chesterfield, the novel meditates on the ways violence and transgression assert themselves in everyday life. Along the way, the author interrogates the human foibles that lead people to act badly, the way power is enacted among different levels of authority, and the ever-changing dynamics of a family.
The use of prose poetry as a narrative device highlights subtleties that might otherwise be lost and Arthurson’s exacting and precise language keeps the pacing brisk and tense. The novel has the tone of a mystery while subverting genre expectations. There are no neat conclusions at the end of The Red Chesterfield, but there is plenty for readers to uncover as they investigate the various references and meanings embedded within this short but intriguing book.