Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
Reviewed by Rima Walker
In 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was arraigned for the murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn. Despite there being two other viable suspects, Sheppard was found guilty and served ten years of his life sentence. On retrial in 1966, he was exonerated and released. He died in 1970 at the age of 46, partly due to alcoholism. This true life story that shocked our nation thanks to the media has everything to do with Ross’s book in which he takes a long and hard look at marriage and murder partly through Sam Sheppard’s eyes, who in this novel is a police detective investigating the death of Alice Pepin, dead of anaphylactic shock after ingesting peanuts—presumed to be a suicide because she knows her allergy to peanuts can kill her.
Was it suicide? Detectives Sheppard and Hastroll strongly suspect her husband, David, of killing her by shoving the peanuts down her throat. If this scenario sounds like a Sheppard situation, well, it is.
And Ross sets us up with the first sentences of the novel: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” Yet David swears he loves his wife, despite the fact that Alice is severely depressed and obese and doesn’t treat him very well after several attempts to have a child, attempts that end in miscarriage, the worst of which takes place on an airplane. Both detectives are in similar situations with their wives. In fact, a good chunk of the book describes Detective (read Doctor) Sheppard’s philandering and problems with his wife, Marilyn. As for Detective Hastroll, he also deals with a wife so depressed that she goes to bed for several months, claiming that he just doesn’t understand. Understand what? Do we ever find out?
What we do find out through the intertwining stories of these three men and their wives is that marriage and murder can too often go hand in hand, that the strongest feelings of love can become entangled with the strongest feelings of violence, even if only in daydreams, even if never acted out.
The prose is vivid and strong and occasionally shocking; the structure of the book is fascinating as it moves from one marriage to another, all of them parallel, although the details may be different. And the introduction of two other characters make the novel even more absorbing because we have to wonder what they are doing here. One is a good Samaritan working for the airline on which Alice has her last miscarriage. He appears to David and helps him through the worst of what has happened to them both. But he is too good to be true, this mysterious guardian angel. The other is a sinister character, a so-called private investigator named Mobius, who is actually a wife killer, a character too bad to be true. But his name is very revealing. A Mobius strip is a surface with only one side and one edge. To make one, take a strip of paper and give it a half twist and tape the ends together. It is said that if an insect crawled all around the strip it would return to the beginning without ever crossing an edge. This concept reflects Ross’s look at marriages in which there is constant repetitiveness, everything remaining the same and going back to the beginning without any progress being made; without change there is no growth. The famous artist M.C. Escher did etchings based on this concept, and David Pepin is very
taken with his work. And so is Ross, whose novel is preceded by a two page depiction of one of Escher’s works, a brain teaser as many of his works are. Another riddle lies in the fact that David is writing a novel. And we are given the first part of it which is exactly the same as the beginning of Ross’s novel.
So this is not just a detective story, a murder mystery; it is much, much more—a devastating look at marriage and relationships in which there is love but also great conflict with ardent desires to make things right and to find a way through the confusions and difficulties to find lasting mutual love. Scott Turow, no stranger to the novelistic world of marriage and murder, has pointed out that Detective Ward Hastroll’s name is an anagram for Lars Thorwald, the husband who kills his wife in Hitchcock’s film, Rear Window. Does this have any bearing on the novel? Yes—because David and Alice met at a class on the works of Alfred Hitchcock. The two strange characters and the references to Escher and Hitchcock add to the challenges the book offers and to the suspense and the driving need to keep turning pages, to get to the end, to find out what Ross’s conclusions are about marriage.~