A Byzantine Brutality
For a eunuch, John, Lord Chamberlain to 6th-century Roman Emperor Justinian I, sure has balls. He must: Not only does he serve a quixotic and ruthless master, but in One for Sorrow he's charged with investigating the murder of an imperial colleague -- a man whose stabbing in a back alley may be linked to the legendary Holy Grail and will cause John to risk his life searching for answers among Constantinople's diversity of performers, pagans and pitiless assassins.
Featured previously only in short stories by married Pennsylvania authors Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, John the Eunuch makes the leap to novel-length sleuthing with aplomb. He's a fascinating, if rather sad protagonist: a practicing pagan in charge of a Christian court; a former bull-ring acrobat, now wearied but wiser with age, who exercises an acute intelligence and political savvy in compensation for his physical deformities. (Squeamish readers might want to wade cautiously into John's vivid account of his involuntary castration: "They grab your flesh casually and brutally, like grasping the neck of a goose to expose it to the knife.") Although usually confident in his actions, in Sorrow the Lord Chamberlain's pride and detecting skills are both severely tested. His probing into one killing leads to another, and as John reconnects with an old Cretan flame he must also come to terms with the existence of a daughter he never knew he had -- a beguiling girl who reminds him, all too painfully, of his long-lost manhood.
Reed and Mayer here offer an expert balance of historical details against humorous societal insights. And they draw readers through their tale's complex plot with help from a cast of ever-more-curious secondary characters, including a "ghastly old" fortuneteller, a knight from King Arthur's court and an abhorrently rapacious innkeeper. The authors excel at re-creating the sensual scenery of Constantinople, which in the 6th century was the capital of all that remained of the Roman Empire. They usher us inside Justinian's palace (where the insomniac emperor wanders apparitionlike through moonlit hallways, ever working), escort us into the plush confines of an upper-class brothel and thrust us amidst a bloody, haunting ceremony to honor the Persian bull god Mithra -- each such scene played to the benefit of this book's general storyline, rather than existing only as diverting set pieces or gratuitous expositions of scholarship.
Like Steven Saylor's Roman mysteries (Rubicon, Murder on the Appian Way, etc.), One for Sorrow is an assuredly penned yarn of familiar mayhem set against a cultural backdrop made alien by the passage of time. I'm pleased to hear that a sequel, Two for Joy, is due out from tiny Poisoned Pen Press in 2000 (with a series of similarly numerical titles to follow). John the Eunuch is one confidential dick worth arousing to action again.
Flying back to Los Angeles after an ignominious season of playing football in Spain, one-time Super Bowl star Zelmont Raines can't help lamenting how quickly and completely his career has tanked. "Time was," he muses, checking through at LAX, "there'd be a limo waiting for me, Courvoisier on a rack in the back, and maybe some mama with pouty red lips warming up the leather seat." But that was before his hip blew out, drugs cost him his wide-receiver spot with the Atlanta Falcons and a statutory-rape charge terminated his endorsement contracts. Now, poorer but no more prudent, Raines is staking his comeback on a new L.A. expansion team, the Barons, defying the odds -- as well as a tight-ass football commissioner who thinks Raines single-handedly gave his sport a bad name -- in hopes of "living large" once more.
Author Gary Phillips' first challenge in The Jook is just to make readers care about a greedy, horny, intemperate S.O.B. like Raines. Utterly bereft of the social conscience and perspective on life that have made Phillips' series character, African-American private eye Ivan Monk (Bad Night Is Falling, 1998), so appealing, Raines looks good only in comparison with the venal secondary figures populating this stand-alone novel. Especially reprehensible are the mob-linked owner of the Barons and his Serbian henchmen. Perhaps even scarier, however, is Wilma Wells, the Barons' sexy and thoroughly amoral lead attorney. Raines' gut tells him to steer clear of Wells ("Smart women and me went together about as good as Clarence Thomas and Al Sharpton on a double date"). But when he's unjustly denied his return to football fame, Raines and his bisexual buddy, former defensive tackle Napoleon Graham, team up with Wells to rip off the Barons owner -- a scheme that will have them dogging a truckload of cash and dodging a storm of bullets before this tale is done.
Funny at times, violent at others, The Jook is a crisp caper novel, rather than a mystery. It offers a faster, more frenetic ride for the reader than any of Phillips' previous works, and given its dialogue peppered with profanity and street slang, the book's style can easily be likened (as it has been before) to that of "blaxploitation" films from the 1970s. There are times when The Jook's plot seems painfully thin, and its climax appears contrived to snare Hollywood's attention. But Phillips, who is a community activist and organizer in addition to being an author, does an extraordinary job here of getting inside the mind of someone so unlike himself, writing in first-person from the perspective of a guy who has no compunction against doing whatever the hell it takes to stay on top in the unreal world of professional sports. From the time the game clock starts ticking, we think Raines a fool. Yet Phillips convinces us to cheer him on, nonetheless.
Thorns of a Dilemma
There are two types of mystery fiction series: those that are memorable for their insights, intense drama, and hairpin turning points; and others you read because you enjoy spending time with familiar characters. Seattleite J.A. Jance's books about Cochise County, Arizona, Sheriff Joanna Brady fall into that second category. Elected to her office after she solved the murder of her lawman husband, the now 30-year-old Joanna has grown into her often frustrating job -- despite the doubts of critics both inside and outside of her department, and while simultaneously juggling her relationships with a young daughter and an overbearing mother. Throw in the occasional murder or criminal conspiracy, and you've got an unexpectedly satisfying series that's part cozy, part police procedural.
Outlaw Mountain shows this mix working smoothly. The story leads off with the death of a wealthy, intoxicated widow, Alice Rogers, her body found impaled on a poisonous cactus. But the thorny succulent just added insult to injury: She was actually slain with an insulin overdose. By whom, is the question, and Sheriff Brady has ample suspects -- from Rogers' son, Clete, "a restaurateur with all the diplomacy of a mountain goat," who recently became mayor of the legendary town of Tombstone; to the deceased's much-younger and conveniently missing handyman/boyfriend; to an amorphous gang of car-jackers. The trouble is, Joanna is continually being sidetracked from her investigation, not only by the actions of local eco-terrorists and her efforts to locate the family of a developmentally disabled man called Junior, but also by the increasingly ardent attentions of her wannabe novelist lover. To learn how the sheriff will ever handle all of these commitments and get to the bottom of rumors about a local drug ring is what keeps you reading, even through Outlaw's rather soap-operatic sections.
As a stylist, Jance is more serviceable than lyrical, and I've known accountants who are less stingy with free advice than she is with character nuances. However, the exotic desert setting, with its cavalcade of rabidly eccentric residents; Joanna's continuing struggle for respect in a male-dominated field; and her uneasy balancing of career with domestic demands all help raise Outlaw Mountain -- and the previous six installments in Jance's Brady bunch -- above the level of genre fluff. Sometimes, even for those of us who prefer our crime fiction tense and turbulent, it's nice to sit back with a story that you know will eventually leave the world better, rather than worse, in the end.
Puritans and Prejudice
Although America's colonial period of the 17th and 18th centuries has since gained a luster of innocence, writers of historical mysteries remind us that in its pre-Revolutionary War days, what's now the northeastern United States harbored con men and connivers -- and a smattering of witch burners -- right alongside its turkey-sharing pilgrims and would-be nation builders. Margaret Miles has made good use of this background in two novels, A Wicked Way to Burn (1998) and her newly released Too Soon for Flowers, both focusing on a Massachusetts widow, Charlotte Willett, and her farmer neighbor Richard Longfellow as they search for human causes and culprits behind crimes that the superstitious are quick to call the Devil's doing. Also worth reading (but sadly out of print) is S.S. Rafferty's Cork of the Colonies (1984), in which Captain Jeremy Cork and his "financial yeoman," Wellman Oaks, tackle clever puzzles all over British America's east coast, rubbing elbows with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other notables on their way.
Now comes Stephen Lewis with The Dumb Shall Sing, his first whodunit set in the fictional New England coastal hamlet of Newbury. It's 1638, right after the Pequot War (during which hundreds of Native Americans were massacred in Connecticut), and widowed midwife Catherine Williams learns that a baby she'd recently helped deliver has died under questionable circumstances. An Irish serving girl, Margaret Donovan, is charged with killing the infant, and the Puritan community of Newbury quickly condemns her, mostly because she's Catholic. However, Catherine believes that the prejudices of her fellow townsfolk have blinded them to the possibility that somebody else -- probably a member of the baby's household -- is actually to blame for the death. While the late infant's mother remains mute behind her wall of pain, and demands are made for Margaret's expeditious hanging, Catherine goes looking for evidence to save the servant's life, helped in her quest by Massaquoit, an intelligent and independent Pequot whom Catherine has just saved from the hands of vengeful colonists.
Lewis has a keen eye for period details, not only in the physical attributes of Newbury, but in the frequently odd behavior of its citizenry. The enthusiastic rush of Newburyites to witness the cruel pillorying of a thief in this tale reminds me of how far entertainment has come in 400 years, while a pseudo-courtroom scene, managed by a narrow-minded governor and a wickedly intolerant minister, is particularly well executed. The dialogue in The Dumb Shall Sing can be era-accurate to the point of ponderousness. But it is the courageous, 50-something Catherine Williams and the defiantly proud Massaquoit who are the principal draws here. Through their eyes, we see the too-frequently idealized Puritans as what they really were: a people just as weak in their morals and hopeful of their future as any who have been born after.
Presumption of Guilt
"The trouble with the last decade of the twentieth century," complains Cleveland private eye Milan Jacovich, "is that most people consider an accusation tantamount to the truth and are ready to step in and condemn with howls of righteous moral indignation." That's certainly true in The Best-Kept Secret, number 10 in Les Roberts' reliably readable series about Jacovich (pronounced YOCK-o-vich, first name MEE-lahn), an ex-footballer, ex-cop, and divorced father of two.
This story begins when the Slovenian sleuth's longtime friend, educator Reggie Parker, asks him to investigate date-rape charges leveled by an anonymous victim against one of Parker's former high-school students, Jason Crowell, who's now a freshman at Ohio's Sherman College. The quiet, gentle Crowell says he didn't do the crime and doesn't even know his accuser's identity, and Parker takes him at his word. But a rabidly anti-male group calling itself the Women Warriors is out for blood, plastering the Sherman campus with flyers that not only accuse but condemn Crowell of having "forced himself" on a young virgin coed. The school's sexual-harassment counselor, Dorothy Strassky, and her fellow faculty members are no less convinced of the teenager's culpability, and even Crowell's choleric father dismisses his son's claims of innocence. Jacovich tries to keep an open mind on the whole sordid affair, even though it's getting him in trouble with his girlfriend, Connie Haley, a one-time rape victim herself. Yet he's frustrated in seeking evidence in Crowell's favor. And the situation only grows dicier for the detective and the student both when heroin is found secreted in Crowell's room and he's accused of murdering counselor Strassky.
Author Roberts, like Robert B. Parker in Hush Money, delights here in poking fun at politically too-correct college officials, and he gets in a few well-deserved jabs against America's scandal-obsessed media. Jacovich (who was introduced in Pepper Pike back in 1988) continues to be an appealing and recognizably human figure, what with his stumbling efforts at post-divorce dating, the pride he shows in his two sons as they mature, and his demonstrable affection for the ethnic and blue-collar complexities of Cleveland. However, Roberts is less successful at developing the secondary characters in this novel, especially Dorothy Strassky, whose stridency and mannish looks are egregious clichés of modern feminism. Connie Haley has also become tiresome, seeming nowhere near as confident or interesting as she should be to attract Jacovich's attention. (Might Milan be due already for a new love in his life?) Such weaknesses don't detract disastrously from Best-Kept Secret, but they are disappointing to those of us who have followed Roberts' series and know he can do better.
A Fearful Day in London Town
Because the noirish private-eye story has its roots and spirit in American cities, the notion of hard-boiled shamuses working the mean streets of London has always struck me as, well, a bit off. However, British TV writer Adam Baron certainly tries to cover the form's basics in his earnestly crafted first novel, Shut Eye. Half-Jewish former cop Billy Rucker maintains a tiny, faceless flat, and an equally nondescript office. He drinks too much and has the hots for an Italian waitress who pours his morning coffee (into a Kojak cup, of all things!). He enjoys a typically uneasy relationship with the local constabulary. And he even boxes and cooks, just like Spenser. There's a bit of Andrew Vachss' Burke in Rucker, too, as many of his cases involve runaway kids.
This time out, though, the detective's energy goes mostly toward solving the murder of airline pilot Teddy Morgan, a married man who was evidently offed during a homosexual one-night stand. The flier's brother -- a conservative Member of Parliament, whose bigoted stances mask his own gay orientation -- would prefer that Rucker bring the killer to heel without causing any further scandal. But that won't be easy. Rucker's investigation reveals that Teddy's wife was cheating on him, and it leads the P.I. deep into the world of young male prostitutes, where violence and fear are a consequence of existing.
Author Baron could have used better editing. He spends this book's first 270 pages recounting Rucker's plodding clue-gathering efforts, only then to rush through to the close, trying to tie up myriad loose ends, without having given readers enough information to understand how Rucker reached his solutions. (When asked to explain the process by which he finally pegged Teddy's slayer, Rucker says, "It just came to me.") Yet Billy Rucker is a generally credible and appealing protagonist, and Baron does an expert job of fleshing out his character -- giving him a brother trapped in a coma; a captivating almost-sister-in-law with whom he shares survivor's guilt (and wants to share much more); and an impressive well of empathy for the lost children he specializes in finding for parents, most of whom want to know that their offspring are safe, but don't necessarily want them home again. That Rucker performs so well even within Shut Eye's halting plot suggests that this new series (a second installment of which is reportedly in the works) has a promising future, and might one day help private-eye noir seem as at home in foggy London as it is in frantic LA. | November 1999