by Faye Kellerman
Published by William Morrow and Company
400 pages, 1998
Buy it online
The Game is Rigged
Faye Kellerman's latest mystery, Moon Music, gets off to a quick start with a near-lethal bludgeoning on the first page. It's not a promising start, though, because the victim is the reader.
The opening chapter is a rambling pontification about geology, anthropology, nuclear pollution, and the raping of the land by the White Man (initial caps are hers) meant to give the impression that this book is about Something Important. It's certainly not. It's about a bunch of intriguing eccentrics in Las Vegas. And fortunately, Kellerman quickly gets down to the business of delivering their story.
The introductory blithering aside, Moon Music is a police procedural with a classic opening. The mutilated body of a prostitute is found in a desert dust storm on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Enter the characters: a relapsing gambler, a sex addict, a compulsive overeater, a giant, and three elderly Native American alcoholics. Those are the cops and their friends. The bad guys are the standard line-up of pimps, whores, private-security goons, and rich, kinky businessmen. Add to this mix an obsessive-compulsive housewife who runs on a treadmill to try to escape the fear that she is becoming a werewolf.
Plus a police lieutenant's wife who runs a kosher restaurant, and a couple of bartenders from the South Pacific -- not to mention the neon landscape of America's biggest small town. There's enough culture clash and pop psychology here to keep you turning the pages even if you're shaking your head.
Moon Music marks a geographical shift for Kellerman. Most of her previous books (Milk and Honey, The Ritual Bath, etc.) have been set in Southern California and have featured the sleuths Peter Decker and Rita Lazarus. She makes the most of this new milieu, delivering a gritty, insider's view of lonesome desert highways, casino security offices, cheap bars, and drab apartments. Particularly effective are night scenes in which detectives and drug dealers stalk one another in the no-man's land behind that isolated Vegas landmark, Needle in the Sky.
Kellerman also introduces a new investigative couple: police detective Rom (Romulus) Poe and his sometimes-significant other, India-born medical examiner Rukmani Kalil. Poe is a well drawn character, disturbed and disturbing. With Native American blood and interests, he's a hard-boiled cousin to Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee.
Both of them neurotic and workaholic, Poe and Rukmani spar on dates, but share tender moments at crime scenes:
Pulling back the tarpaulin, she uncovered the dead face. Poe felt his stomach lurch. It took him a moment to find his voice. And when he did, it took the form of old malicious speech patterns. "Wha... what... ha... happened to her face?"
Like her "sister in crime" Sue Grafton, Kellerman can be counted on for an imaginative story, provocative characters, and crisp pacing. Moon Music is a good read, but not much more.
What holds it back? Certainly the attempt to weave trendy threads of Native American mysticism and ecological consciousness into a fast-paced crime story. This works about as well as shuffling a Tarot card into a blackjack deck.
Moon Music suffers from the same flaws that have plagued some of Kellerman's earlier books. Clichés and odd phrases -- "slings and arrows bounced off him," "malicious speech patterns" -- mar the early chapters. But the most serious problem is Kellerman's trademark mix of nasty thrills with kitschy cuteness, which often comes off as self conscious instead of clever. Joseph Wambaugh's early books about Los Angeles cops (The Onion Field, The Blue Knight) established the standard for deftly propelling readers from shudders of revulsion to snorts of amusement. You'd think if Kellerman could make this sort of juxtaposition work anywhere, it would be in Las Vegas. But it seems that steeping readers in blow jobs, crack, violent sex, and blood, and then expecting them to chuckle in the next chapter has become a gamble in the 1990s. And Kellerman loses here. Who cares about these characters when, under her rather heavy hand, the game is rigged from the beginning? House odds favor the grimace over the smile -- and what laughter you do hear sounds ugly. | September 1998
KAREN G. ANDERSON is the managing editor of the Seattle-based magazine Northwest Health. Her writing has also appeared in Psychology Today, The Hartford Courant, and The Boston Globe.