Commentary

Art Meets Reality in New Book “The Obituary Writer”

by Mark Dreisonstok

The Obituary Writer by Patrick Oster (Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Oster)

Patrick Oster lived in the Washington area for ten years covering the White House, State Department, and CIA as the Chicago Sun Times’ Washington Bureau Chief. He became managing editor at “Bloomberg News” and is now that venue’s obituary writer. A writer of fiction thrillers such as “The German Club” and “The Hacker Chronicles,” his most recent novel release is “The Obituary Writer.”


Yet the eponymous obituary writer of the murder novel is a far cry from real-life obituary writer Patrick Oster. Rather than enjoying the stellar Oster career, obituary writer Wallace “Mack” Macrae is down-on-his luck, having been fired from his respectable position as investigative journalist of a renowned newspaper known simply as the “Journal” due to his alcoholism. This, in turn, was caused by his depression in the face of his wife Helen’s terminal disease. Mack is now taking the only job he can get, which involves writing obituaries which sensationalize and bring to light notorious scandals of the lives of the dearly departed.


Mack prepares obituaries for the still-living, as Mr. Oster tells Falls Church News-Press is common for obituary writers of celebrities. (The author of this review has also served as a writer of obituaries and can confirm this.) Mack has been on the heels of 92-year-old Dieter von Gehlen, a German national who immigrated to the U.S. and whom Mack believes to have had something to do with the Nazis in the past. Meanwhile, von Gehlen has developed a superior weight-loss wonder drug, for which he longs for the Nobel Prize for his efforts. Then, unexpectedly, the nonagenarian commits suicide. Much of the rest of the novel involves efforts by Mack, with the assistance of von Gehlen’s widow Nadya, to prove this was not suicide at all but murder.


In addition to a thrilling plot line, there are welcome literary allusions. Some of the action takes place in the “Sleepy Hollow” of upstate New York, the haunt of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman of Washington Irving’s classic tale. Mack’s sinister boss of the online obituary “service” is Anton Teufel, the surname being German for “devil.” Small wonder that Mack refers to his “boss from hell” and the feeling he has made a “Faustian bargain” after his fall from the grace of legitimate journalism. On a macabre note, the company Mack writes for is named dead.com


If the novel betrays Mr. Oster’s cultured literary taste of Irving and perhaps Goethe, it relates even more to real life. “I wrote a novel about a millennial who was a hacker, and I know a lot about hacking and cybercrime and so on because I covered it” as a journalist in real-life. Hacking also makes its way into the current novel as a theme, for Vassily, a person of questionable background in the employ of Teufel, utilizes these skills to assist Mack learn more of the background and associates of von Gehlen’s final days.


Using an exciting narrative technique, Mr. Oster cross-cuts between Mack’s search for the possible killer of von Gehlen and conversations between two individuals who might be responsible for this crime. An interesting scene has the two who are likely responsible for the crime meet in Donald J. Trump State Park. This park straddling New York’s Westchester and Putnam Counties actually exists, and Mr. Oster dryly explained its real-life origins in our conversation exactly as he does here in the novel — another case of everyday reality turned into the novelist’s art for “The Obituary Writer” and for Patrick Oster, the obituary writer.


We can recommend warmly Patrick Oster’s “The Obituary Writer” on several fronts. It is, first and foremost, a first-rate detective story in the venerable tradition, reminding one at times of the hard-boiled school, at times of the armchair sleuthing of more genteel mystery stories. The novel also has literary references which readers of classic fiction will appreciate. Finally, the book draws on the author’s own experiences as a wide-ranging journalist, with his deep knowledge and observations from a lifetime of journalism into areas such as white-collar corruption, cybercrime, scandals, international affairs, and, of course, life stories as a writer of obituaries.


The book is published by Padraig Press and, at $14.99 per paperback copy, may be the right holiday gift for yourself or someone you know interested in murder mysteries and the diverse interests and beats of a journalist.