Review: Slipping by John Toomey

Slipping, the third novel from Irish author John Toomey, is a murder mystery, but not the sort we’re used to. The book opens with narrator and writer Charlie Vaughan receiving an unusual request from a psychologist at The Reil Institute, “once a prestigious psychiatric facility”: a patient, 49-year-old schoolteacher Albert Jackson, is hoping Vaughan can take the facts of his case and construct a “pseudofiction” to “unravel motive and intent in a manner so tragic that it would deflect from the heinousness of the crime.”

Jackson has murdered his wife, and he’s hoping Vaughan’s narrative can help his children empathize with him. “I’m aware that sympathy will never happen,” he explains. “Nor should it. But an understanding is what I’d like.”

The mystery, then, comes from Vaughan’s quest to truly know Jackson, a stodgy, unreliable man, as well as piece together how Jackson spent the six hours between when he bludgeoned his wife and when he was found holding her lifeless body in a loving embrace on the beach, making this a mystery of motive and identity.

Slipping is an odd book, reading more like a collection of Vaughan’s research notes than a novel as it flips from Vaughan’s interviews with Jackson’s colleagues, students, and acquaintances to Jackson’s personal account of the murder to interviews between Vaughan and Jackson at the institute. But the form does well to mimic the process and pacing of Vaughan’s investigation, as well as his mission to “imaginatively reconstruct” Jackson’s story to achieve a certain means.

And when he does just that — succeed in portraying Jackson as a man we can empathize with — we are left wondering how much of our empathy is sincere and how much is simply a result of Vaughan’s clever narrative structure.

A surprising mystery about the stories we tell ourselves and the varying identities we carry, Slipping is a true testament to the power of narrative technique — a power that should be challenged and prodded if we are to ever know the truth.