"These days it profits a man to go to whatever lengths he can to avoid trouble," observes citizen-detective Gordianus the Finder, as he ponders how best to remove the strangled corpse of young Numerius Pompeius from his home's otherwise tranquil garden. This murder in Rome could hardly have occurred at a more troublesome time. It's 49 BC, and Julius Caesar, fresh from conquering Gaul and hungry to assume leadership of the Roman state, has provoked a civil war by marching his forces across Italy's Rubicon River and south toward the capital. Pompey the Great, opposition head of the Roman Senate, is set to flee with his army, leaving the city unprotected and in chaos. But first, he demands that Gordianus solve the slaying of Numerius, who was Pompey's cousin and protégé. And just to guarantee a vigorous investigation, Pompey takes Gordianus' slow-witted son-in-law away as a hostage.
Part whodunit, part panoramic historical novel, Rubicon is the seventh installment in Steven Saylor's Gordianus series, and one of the most expertly executed of that lot. It finds the gumshoe (er, gumsandal?) settling into his early 60s, now the patriarch of a growing family, yet with his wit and wits as sharp as ever. Gordianus hardly breaks a sweat figuring out how Numerius' demise is related to the factionalism wrenching Rome asunder, and that it may even be linked to information the dead man had regarding a traitorous conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. But to learn more, the sleuth must consult with lawyer-philosopher Cicero and enlist the aid of Cicero's conniving secretary; survive a hazardous trek to the coastal town where Pompey intends to make his last stand; and take desperate actions that belie his "pretensions to moral superiority."
Saylor's books are delightfully rampant with fact-founded ribaldry, political treachery, and arcane social prejudices, all of which make you wonder why the hell you didn't pay more attention to Roman history in school. The author occasionally lapses into jarring modern slang ("Pompey will be mightily pissed"), and Gordianus' unexpected solution to Numerius' killing will likely cause prim mystery purists to holler "foul." But for the most part, Rubicon is a deftly written and satisfying balance of storytelling with scholarship. And Saylor's re-creation of classical Rome -- complete with tomb-lined rural thoroughfares, bodyguards who snack on whole heads of garlic ("claiming it gives them strength"), and fleshy eunuch bartenders -- is so vivid, you suspect that he must be secretly channeling some toga-draped ancient to get his details right.
Although western history is replete with oddball religious cults, they only became a familiar element of crime fiction in the 1970s, back when Rolls Royce-loving Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, both focused public attention on such groups. Arthur Lyons' private eye, Jacob Asch, tangled with "Jesus Freaks" and deprogrammers in All God's Children (1975). Four years later, "salvage expert" Travis McGee infiltrated a fanatical religious cult in John D. MacDonald's The Green Ripper. In 1984's Valediction, Boston sleuth Spenser retrieved a young dancer from a militant religious sect. More recently, cults have figured into the plots of Jeremiah Healy's Rescue (1995), Elizabeth M. Cosin's clever Zen and the Art of Murder (1998), Kathy Reichs' Death Du Jour (1999) and Aquarius Descending, the third installment of Martha Lawrence's Zodiac series about "psychic investigator" Dr. Elizabeth Chase.
Lawrence says that she'd begun writing Aquarius before the comet-connected Heaven's Gate suicides at Rancho Santa Fe, California, in 1997. (She explains that her real inspiration for the story was "my experience of being captured by the Moonies in my college days.") But because the author (like her protagonist Chase) grew up in Rancho Santa Fe, it's impossible not to make the connection. That's where the relationship ends, though, because this book's cult seems less interested in self-destruction than self-gratification.
With her business at a slow point, and a $25,000 fee on the table, Chase is willing to set aside any knee-jerk jealousy when her FBI agent boyfriend asks her to find his ex-fiancée, Jennifer Shaffer. Jen was allegedly kidnapped in the late 1980s by a group that now calls itself The Bliss Project, and her father hasn't heard anything from her in two years -- until a package suddenly arrives in his mail, containing Jen's Medic Alert bracelet. Is this a call for help from Jen... or a sign that she has died? Hoping to locate her (after three previous investigators had failed), and despite warnings that the Bliss-ters will stop at nothing to maintain their secrets, Chase goes undercover into the organization's pricey consciousness-raising program. Only to face the cover-up of a fellow cultist's death; subtle mind-control techniques that sap her unique psychic powers; and a money-laundering scheme that can only heap bad karma upon The Bliss Project and its charismatic female leader.
While the idea a "psychic detective" sounds impossibly contrived, Lawrence manages to make Elizabeth Chase credible. This is due, in large part, to the fact that Chase is as skeptical of her paranormal abilities as any reader. ("For whatever reason, people expect miracles from psychics," she remarks early on. "I tell my clients up front that my gift is sporadic and occasionally unreliable.") She depends more on familiar detective methods than on "revelations" to solve crimes. Chase's talent for sifting out a person's hidden fears or foibles is most effective when Lawrence uses it to add depth to her secondary characters, such as the directionless souls who search for meaning through The Bliss Project. Aquarius Descending is charming escapist fare. No matter what astrological sign you were born under.
Blackmailers Have All the Advantages
Unfolding in the shadow of a real-life, 1891 gambling scandal called the Baccarrat Case (a British affair that implicated, among others, the ever-incautious Prince of Wales), this 19th outing for police Superintendent Thomas Pitt and his upper-crust wife Charlotte finds the pair investigating a plot that could bring ruin to still another segment of high society. Somebody is blackmailing influential Londoners -- or so it appears. However, no money has been demanded, no favors asked for. And the deliberately distorted allegations of cowardice or corruption that the extortionist threatens to reveal would be impossible to prove... though equally impossible to disprove. The ultimate mystery set forth by Anne Perry in this sometimes ponderously complicated tale is what the blackmailer can hope to achieve through his (or her) campaign of intimidation.
Pitt becomes involved in this imbroglio after a shabbily clad shoelace salesman is found murdered on the posh Bedford Square doorstep of General Brandon Balantyne (whom the Pitts have previously encountered, with tragic results, in Callendar Square and Death in the Devil's Acre). In his pocket, the tramp carried an elegant snuffbox belonging to Balantyne, yet the general denies knowing anything about the dead man -- at least initially. Only later does he confide to his friend Charlotte Pitt that he's being blackmailed, and that he'd given the snuffbox over as a "token of good faith." Meanwhile, the superintendent is approached by his stoic superior, Assistant Commissioner Cornwallis, who confides that he, too, has been threatened with the broadcasting of a questionable episode from his past. As Pitt's gruff, opinionated aide, Sergeant Samuel Tellman, pursues the identify of the Bedford Square corpse, and as the Pitts separately search for ways to stop the blackmailer, more gentlemen are found to have been victimized. All fear even the whiff of scandal -- a concern that's heightened after one of their number sees his rising political capital decimated by exposure of a fabricated "secret," and another apparently commits suicide.
In several regards, Bedford Square outshines the last Pitt adventure, Brunswick Gardens (1998). Thomas and especially Charlotte both enjoy more prominent roles in this new novel, and though aristocratic and eccentric Great-Aunt Vespasia is putting on some age (she's now in her 80s), she has ample opportunities here to show that she's savvier and stronger than the stereotypical Victorian dowager. Also putting in an unusually fine performance is Tellman, whose knee-jerk prejudice against the British upper-class is challenged by his developing admiration for General Balantyne. "If he could be so wrong in his assumptions about Balantyne," Tellman muses at one point, "what about all the other arrogant, overprivileged people he had disliked and dismissed?"
Regrettably, the conclusion of this finely-written story -- deliberately emphasizing the importance of honor among England's 19th-century gentry -- is rather a letdown. Loose ends are wrapped up too quickly. The purpose of the blackmail seems inadequate to all the troubles it has caused. And the extortionist turns out, in retrospect, to have been too-obviously reprehensible, not a person who (as is common in Perry's yarns) was moved to a moment's desperate act in order to protect somebody else or their own station in life.
Watch Your Back!
As I read through this stylish legal thriller, I couldn't help but consider its seeming debts to Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film The Wrong Man. In that movie, Henry Fonda plays a nightclub musician accused of committing a string of hold-ups and, despite his innocence, is nearly railroaded into a conviction. The Devil to Pay offers a similar scenario. Only this time the person at risk of ending his days in incarceration is a flawed San Francisco attorney named Jack Darwin. He had thought he was on the way to rebuilding his financial, emotional, and career future until his beautiful, overspending wife Karla accuses him (falsely) of sexual brutality and he becomes the prime suspect in a local series of rape-murders.
What Darwin doesn't know will definitely hurt him. For the creator of the frame that's rapidly closing about his life is none other than his new best friend and mentor, the very person who's supposed to be handling his criminal defense: attorney David Avila. Hot tempered and cold blooded, Avila -- unbeknownst to his rapidly despairing client -- is already sleeping with and intending to steal Darwin's wife. Now he wants Darwin's family money, too. And Avila can get it if he's able to 1) convince the cops that his client is guilty of the brutal murders that he, himself, is committing and 2) botch Darwin's defense without anybody else noticing.
Best known for his series of novels about 1950s Midwestern private eye Mitch Roberts and for his previously praised cop drama, Schedule Two (1996), Kansas author Gaylord Dold presents here a story ripe with insight into the ways that politics, personalities, and money can help to derail justice. If one were looking for a manual on how to destroy another person through the American courts system, this would certainly be a contender. However, Dold does little to raise his two principal combatants -- Darwin and Avila -- above the black-and-white. They are, respectively, just too naïve and too villainous to be credible. And the revelations that will eventually save Darwin from death row are in no way surprising, either in their substance or delivery. The Devil to Pay is certainly a fast read and can be gripping at times, but to have been memorable, it might have required Hitchcock's skilled direction.
Slightly more than halfway through Strawberry Sunday, Stephen Greenleaf makes a comment about Cesar Chavez, the late founder of America's United Farm Workers, that suggests the author's thinking about his own fictional private eye, John Marshall Tanner. Chavez, he writes, "may have been less effective than leaders like Gandhi and King, perhaps, but the effort, not the result, is the measure of a man, and his effort had been superhuman at times...."
Without question, Tanner, the lawyer-turned-San Francisco shamus who was introduced in Grave Error 20 years ago, has put much more heart and soul into his battles for justice than he could ever account for in monetary gain or psychological rewards. Unlike, say, Lew Archer, who seemed able to travel largely unsoiled through the spirit-draining muck of his professional milieu, Marsh Tanner can barely get up each morning without risk that his ideals will somehow be bashed or his hopes for happiness dashed. Women come slowly into and go faster from his life. He drives a beat-up car, lives in a depressing apartment. He has few friends -- and even fewer since Past Tense (1997), which found him shooting his best buddy, cop Charley Sleet, and catching a bullet in his own gut. At 49 years of age, the best Tanner can say for himself is that he's "bloodied but unbowed."
So it's not surprising that he should be attracted to Rita Lombardi. A charming and ambitious young woman, brimming with the optimism that Tanner only wishes he possessed, he meets her in the hospital while recovering from his gunshot wound. She's having a couple of birth defects surgically remedied and can hardly wait to return to Haciendas, her hometown in California's fertile Salinas Valley, where -- through some unspecified but allegedly foolproof means -- she intends to improve conditions for thousands of strawberry pickers and sharefarmers. Tanner enjoys listening to her talk about the strawberry industry, and he agrees to visit her again when he's released from medical care.
However, by the time the detective reaches Haciendas, Rita has already died in a brutal, mysterious attack. Reckoning that he owes her for her convalescent companionship, Tanner takes on the solving of Rita's murder. It's a task that pits him against the Gelbride family, Haciendas' most powerful landowners; finds him butting heads with both Rita's Hispanic fiancé, independent grower Carlos Reyna, and her widowed mother; and teaches him that life for migrant farm workers hasn't improved all that much since the days of Chavez. The Gelbrides -- particularly, the appropriately named Randy, whose crude pursuit of a beautiful teenaged picker raises Tanner's paternal hackles -- are likely suspects in Rita's death. They certainly have generations of secrets to hide, one of which might have provided the blackmail ammo Rita needed to reform the local agricultural caste system. But there are plenty of other possible solutions to Tanner's case, some of which would actually have been more satisfying and likely than the one on which he ultimately settles.
Strawberry Sunday isn't the strongest entry in this series (Book Case and Blood Type were both more engaging). Yet it is pleasing to see that a classic, dogged investigator like Marsh Tanner can still appeal in a genre filled with gimmicky sleuths. Measured by his efforts, he stands tall.