The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband
Out this October is The Question of the Unfamiliar Husband, the sequel to The Question of the Missing Head, a mystery I quite enjoyed. They’re both credited as written by E.J. Copperman and Jeff Cohen, who are the same person with different literary backgrounds: one alias writes mysteries, the other books on parenting children with autism.
The protagonist, detective Samuel Hoenig, has Asperger’s Syndrome, and that condition drives his desire to answer questions brought to him. His different view on human behavior — not distracted by the conventions most other people operate under — also helps him figure out twisty mysteries. It’s a great combination of protagonist and situation that puts a new twist on the traditional anti-social detective type.
Unfortunately, I didn’t like this volume quite as much as the previous book. The mystery seemed more artificial, and the behavior of some of the characters only made sense to me as actions needed by the author.
A woman shows up in Samuel’s office asking him to figure out who her husband is. She went to a costume party and woke up married, according to her new spouse, although she doesn’t remember any of it. She wants to know who her new husband really is, although the mystery gets much more complicated than that, with a passel of ex-wives and multiple identities. I found it quite difficult to keep track of everyone, particularly if you can’t read the whole book at once.
Samuel keeps getting drawn into the situation, eventually as a patsy for a frame-up. Also in this volume, he has to convince Janet Washburn to come back to work for him. She was an able assistant in Missing Head, at times negotiating the outside world for him and explaining his condition to others, but given the life-threatening events of that book, she’s unwilling to get involved again.
The woman arranging the core mystery never comes to life as a character; she’s just a device that does things to keep the plot moving, but I never found her supposed motives plausible. It all seemed like much too much trouble to go to to achieve what she wanted, the kind of thing that only happened in books. Since I enjoyed Missing Head because of its realistic portrayal of someone who thinks differently, the contrast here between plausible Samuel and the other, less believable characters stood out strangely.
Sometimes, I found myself assuming that characters did odd things because they had some secret plan that would be revealed later, as with Detective Dickinson, but as the story progressed, I found that their motives were meant to be taken straightforwardly, as acting just how they were presented. Given that their choices could be hard to believe, and given how twisty the main murder motive was, this was difficult to accept. There isn’t a clear distinction between people whose odd behavior makes them suspects and people whose odd behavior is meant to be accepted as given.
There’s acknowledgement of the possibility of romance, but given that everything another character says is filtered through Samuel, as the narrator, it comes across as stilted. Perhaps that’s accurate for his perceptions, but it’s a bit weird to have him tell us that his mother thinks he likes so-and-so. He follows up by saying that he’s denied it, but he doesn’t tell us what he does actually feel, a noticeable gap.
The detective trying to interrogate Samuel was quite funny, though, due to Samuel’s literalism in answering what we know to be rhetorical questions and his knowledge of investigatory procedure. Also on the positive side, we get to see more of how his mother explains things to him in terms he’ll understand. Early on, Samuel acknowledges that a case involving relationships and personal interactions is particularly difficult for him, which is why he needs help from others to understand why people affected by such do what they do.
Overall, I was glad to see more with Samuel and Janet, but I hope — if there’s a next time — that the mystery is a bit more understandable.