Book Review: The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry
The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry is a mind-bending speculative psychological suspense thriller about a serial killer pursuing his victim across time and space and the woman who is determined to stop him, even if it upends her own reality.
Felicity Staples is a journalist who mostly likes her New York City beat in politics. When she gets stuck covering a murder because the crime reporter is unavailable, though, she finds herself not only sucked into the story but into a multiverse of possibilities, all centered on a beautiful young woman named Madison May.
Madison May is a real estate agent who once harbored dreams of acting stardom. When a client she’s showing a house to insists that he’s traveled through multiple worlds in order to find her, she thinks he’s just crazy—not that his motives really matter to her once he’s killed her. Felicity, called in to provide basic reporting, figures Madison’s murder is a simple, unfortunate case of wrong place, wrong time. But then, she herself is thrust out of the reality she knows, with another shot at saving Madison’s life before Clay Hors, Madison’s deranged killer, can murder again.
The narrative switches between Felicity and the Madison of whichever universe she lands in as Clay strives to find Madison before Felicity can stop him. A disoriented Felicity is further hampered by the fact that she’s struggling to figure out how any of this is possible. Luckily, she seems to be a journalist in every alternate reality she goes to, so she can arrange for interviews with people who might be able to explain things to her. One such is a professor of physics who initially laughs when she brings up the possibility of a Multiverse, though not for the reason she expects.
“The Multiverse isn’t fashionable?” [Felicity asks.]
“It was exciting for a while. It seemed to offer a way to solve string theory such that might allow for a partial unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity. However, it’s untestable. Which means it’s not a solution so much as an open box you can rummage around in for whatever kind of theory you like. It won’t completely go away, though, so we kick it between the Math and Physics Departments every few years.”
“It’s not disproven, then.” She took out her notepad. “It might be real.”
Once she’s accepted the reality of her situation, she sets with vigor to the task of saving Madison. In this, she finds both help and hindrance in the form of the shadowy organization that made dimension-hopping possible in the first place. The organization wants to find an acceptable solution to the Clay problem in order to move on with its mission, but Felicity is savvy enough to know that there’s really only one way to stop him—if he doesn’t kill her first.
This was a masterfully constructed science fiction take on the serial killer genre, as an obsessed killer hops between realities to stalk and murder the woman he claims to love. In addition to just being a really thoughtfully put together work of speculative fiction, it’s also deeply intelligent when it comes to the psychology of misogyny and how women really think and feel when faced with it. I was considerably impressed by Max Barry’s sharp dissection of guys like Clay, who think they’re being romantic when what they’re really being is monstrous. Conversations like this one between Madison and her best friend, Zar, underscore this understanding:
“I dumped a dude once. Sweetest guy in the world. But when I gave him his marching orders, he’s leaving crusty socks on my front doorstep.”
“Crusty as in…”
“I assume so,” Zar said. “I didn’t inspect them up close.”
She squinted. “But why?”
Zar spread her arms dramatically. “They blame you for making them feel something. And instead of processing dealing like a normal human being, they want to make you feel something back. Scared, angry, doesn’t matter. It’s a power thing. They all do it. Even the nice ones.[“]
Thrilling and smart, with loads of humor and heart to spare, this may be Mr. Barry’s best book yet. It’s certainly one of the best female-centered takes on the stalker genre I’ve ever read, in addition to being a truly absorbing tale of cross-dimensional travel. If you’re a fan of crime or sci-fi novels or just of books where women do their best to help other women, you should definitely read The 22 Murders of Madison May.