The Glass Cocoon is a 500-page behemoth of a murder mystery written by two first-time novelists, Christopher J. Jarmick and Serena F. Holder. The theme is provocative: what if one of the anonymous members of a sexually-explicit online chatroom started killing the families and friends of other members? Not unlike an X-rated version of the Clue board game, the suspects have fanciful monikers like Sexxythang, YoungandHung, NastyOlGeezer, and Boobalicious. For anyone who’s ever wondered what cybersex looks and sounds like, The Glass Cocoon doesn’t shy away from delivering the goods. Midway through the novel is an 8-page transcript of hardcore simulated love-making that would make Bill Clinton blush. One of the characters later confesses, “I know out of context it might seem sleazy.” It is a testament to the authors’ skill that the story never succumbs to prurience. Indeed, the book succeeds both as a New Age love story and a sleek high-tech thriller.
The two central characters initially seem unlikely candidates for an Internet flirtation. Phillip Craven is a 43-year-old forensic photographer living outside of Seattle, and Patricia Ridgeway is in her 50s and the owner of a bookstore in Taos, New Mexico. It’s not lust that brings them together. Phillip is researching the seamy side of the online world for a syndicated column that he writes in his spare time. Patricia is doing some amateur sleuthing for a close friend who suspects her spouse is involved with someone in a chatroom. The novel effectively portrays the addictive allure of online relationships and the modus operandi of predators. Excerpts from Craven’s newspaper columns are genuinely informative and give the story a sense of documentary realism. There is a poignant subplot concerning a sheriff who becomes sexually obsessed with someone he meets online. The term “the web” has never seemed more sinister.
Structurally, The Glass Cocoon is astonishing. A 50-page prologue thrusts us pell-mell into a climactic portion of the novel that we won’t encounter again for hundreds of pages. Two long sections of the book begin with the identical police interrogation glimpsed from different perspectives. Flashbacks and flashforwards are shuffled with dizzying cinematic flair. An evocative scene set in Big Sur, California later turns out to be something other than what we imagined. All of the characters, including Phillip Craven and Patricia Ridgeway, withhold information from each other and second-guess and question one another’s motives. Some readers may find themselves baffled by the book’s edgy postmodern approach to storytelling, but the elliptical style adds immeasurably to the mystery and suspense.
The third-person narrative voice isn’t always consistent from chapter to chapter. authorial omniscience is arbitrary or disembodied at times. An editorial aside on the Vietnam War and the 1960s, for example, is awkwardly shoehorned into the text at one point. But more often than not, the novel’s eccentricities yield surprising and startling results. There’s a moment when we abruptly find ourselves privy to the thoughts of an aging and overweight coroner at the crime scene of a murdered woman. The coroner is named Pete Baker and he appears nowhere else in the book. Yet, for six haunting pages we’re inside Baker’s head and we learn of his loneliness:
Pete didn’t know much about women. He’d never dated, and the only two women he really knew were his aunt who had raised him and his sister Sheila… Pete looked around the room, trying to get a sense of the person who had lived there. As he glanced toward the bed, he saw the roses for the first time. A beautiful arrangement of bright red roses, beyond buds but not yet fully open. Their fragrance filled the room. He guessed that women must love flowers… He’d never sent anyone flowers before. He didn’t even send flowers to his aunt’s funeral. How do men learn the right things to do, he wondered somewhat wistfully?
While the novel is occasionally marred by its excesses, the metafictional digressions have an exhilarating go-for-broke quality. Call it the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” school of literature or the “loose baggy monster” syndrome. Geographical and cultural aspects of Seattle and Taos are exhaustively described, as are the rituals of Patricia’s deeply spiritual Cherokee heritage. Phillip’s logorrheic penchant for composing heartfelt poems (even notes to his ex-lover are rhymed: “Hi hon,/ Not much time,/ Gotta run”) is often touching, although the dozens of pages devoted to his self-described “treacle” might have comfortably been cut by half. The expansive writing pays off, however, in the beautifully detailed stories-within-stories of the working lives, romances, and marriages of secondary characters, several of whom end up violently murdered. The victims are never mere stick-figures or plot devices. Their deaths are all the more shocking because of the vividness with which their personalities are drawn for us.
– Bob Wake