Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, Ada, or Ardor) is not what one would call a traditional mystery story. You won’t find it among the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Father Brown, or Phillip Marlowe in the mystery section of your local bookstore. Instead it’s shelved in the classics section with Ulysses, The Adventures of Augie March, Mrs. Dalloway, and other noted literary titles (Pale Fire came in at #53 on the list of the Modern Library 100 Best Novels). And, yet, I can’t think of a greater mystery.
Pale Fire presents a puzzle and then begins unraveling the plot through a set of carefully planted clues, like bread crumbs for an inquisitive robin, and like any good riddle, it serves up these morsels as red herrings that take the reader far off course. But Pale Fire is not so much a whodunit (though those elements certainly exist) but a who-wrote-it? Of course, literally, Nabokov penned it but, let me clarify:
In the novel, John Shade composes a 999 line poem in four cantos called Pale Fire. It’s a brilliant tour-de-force about his life, wife Sybil, the tragic death of his daughter Hazel Shade, the supernatural, the quest for knowledge, and the hopes that gods are “playing a game of worlds” to offset what appears to be a chaotic randomness of life. The famed and picturesque opening lines begin:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.