My first inclination in describing this book would be to say it was a funny mystery. But really, this is a sad book about a tragic life led by a complete bumbler. But it's funny. And quirky and full of random, hilarious tangents. "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England" by Brock Clarke is about a man named Sam Pulsifer who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickenson house when he was 18 years old. He spent the next ten years in prison for it, moved back home, his parents kicked him out and he went to college. Sam is not a criminal person. He is not even prone to temper tantrums. But he is the type of person to bumble (his word) everything he touches or attempts. He finds a career path that he's good at and loves, he meets a beautiful woman who loves him back and he has two wonderful children. He has also neglected to inform them of the ten years of prison and why he was there.
The more hilarious parts of the books are the descriptions of his fellow inmates at the minimum security prison he resides at: bond analysts who are obsessed with writing their memoires and whose conversation is littered with "dude". Clarke's painfully accurate description of suburban life had me in stitches. The people who wrote him letters begging him to burn down other writers' homes are absolute gems. Sam's parents are a sad mess and even in their somberness, there's humor there too. Thank goodness, or else it would all be too depressing to read.
When you think things are going to start falling apart, it does. Someone starts burning down writers' homes in New England. Sam starts his own investigation, but as you might guess, he bumbles it. Really, Sam is quite hopeless. He's like a socially awkward person at a fancy dinner party. You watch his antics with horrified fascination. He always realizes what he's done after the fact, but you so hope he'll kick his brain into gear and not say everything he thinks out loud. Then again, that makes him more of a real character instead of a fictional one, since how many of us actually say the exact right thing at the exact right moment anyway?
The mystery part of the book was really well done, with the reader figuring out the answer along with the main character, as opposed to many chapters before, which doesn't count as a mystery in my mind. That makes this book so far a tragic comedic mystery. That's a lot of genres packed into one book, if you ask me. Well worth reading, however. Watch out for a smattering of profanity, but no graphic descriptions of anything. And be prepared to have a curious desire to visit some writers' homes in New England.