I'll describe the well-polished Skull Session (Viking $23.95, signed copies available) by first novelist Daniel Hecht as a neurological gothic-detective story.
Protagonist Paul Skogland gains our sympathy, immediately and throughout the story, by facing several conflicts simultaneously and with fortitude. His foremost conflict is with his Tourette's Syndrome, and the struggle to wean himself completely from daily doses of haloperidol. Paul's senses, creativity, and ability to work are all blunted while on medication. He'll just have to control his motor tics and verbal outbursts. His condition is also prompting a distressing custody fight over his eight year old son, who has seizures and neurological problems of his own.
So Paul overcomes some reluctance and accepts an offer from his eccentric and financially well-off Aunt Vivian to put to rights Highwood, the family mansion/hunting lodge on the Hudson outside Lewisboro, N.Y. It seems the house was trashed after she abruptly departed and left it vacant for months. Vivian refuses to let strangers paw through her stuff, it must be family. Paul is stunned, as are all who witness the scene, by the ferocious vandalism that has taken place. As he and his attractive risk-taking lover start digging into the layers of debris they soon discover the destruction transcends simple vandalism - there's an impossible force evident that suggests the supernatural.
To complicate matters the disappearance of several area teenagers is the focus of state police investigator Morgan Ford. Highwood may have been a trysting place. So as Paul plays amateur detective, searching for answers to his own haunting family memories, Morgan does police work looking for what he fervently hopes are no multiple murder victims. Skull Session starts with a bang, and roughly 418 pages later ends with one. What falls between lacks action but still keeps up a good pace. The setting and atmosphere are solid. The tensions are dynamic and come from several directions. There's even a ticking-clock deadline device that's used to good effect. Hecht teases the reader with a set of credible suspects all with well-delineated personalities - and motives. There's also an interesting romantic subplot established when the detective falls red-faced in love at first sight with Paul's girlfriend. Partially based on true events, this is an assured and intelligent effort that's sure to gain award attention.
British author Iain Pears is known to us for his handful of intriguing and satisfying genre murder mysteries, set in the Italian art world, and featuring (somewhat equally) cop Flavia di Stefano of the Rome art squad and her now fiancee art historian turned dealer Jonathan Argyll. This includes the most recent Giotto's Hand ($21.00, '94) and the forthcoming sixth in the set Death and Restoration (Scribners, $22.00, end of August), which the author has personally indicated to me as being especially good. What's hard to understand is why the series has yet to appear in U.S. paperback. I predict this will change with the arrival of the deep, ambitious, and recommended An Instance of the Fingerpost (Riverhead/Putnam, $27.00, mid-March), a substantial (700+ pages), bold, and multi-voiced historical murder mystery set in Restoration Oxford (1662).
When disliked but influential Oxford Don Dr. Robert Grove is poisoned, certain evidence and testimony point to a former servant, young Sarah Blundy. Sarah reputedly has loose morals and is rumored to be a witch. Her confession leads to a rush of judgement and the scaffold. But the crime is not so straight-forward, as revealed in the novel's four separate books, each with a different narrator, who each have their own biased perceptions of the events leading to and subsequent to the crime.
Visiting Venetian medical student Marco Da Cola opens the story, and though seemingly an impartial observer, does have witty and pointed opinions about the English. He has spent time listening to and arguing politics, religion, and physik with the scholars and thinkers gathered at Oxford (the genesis of the Royal Society). Da Cola has also treated Sarah's critically injured mother, whose late husband was a notorious anti-Royalist. Law undergraduate Jack Prescott narrates the second, as he single-mindedly investigates the betrayal and exile of his father, an active supporter of Charles I and the restoration. The third book is told by Dr. John Wallis (a real person): cleric, xenophobe, mathematician and cryptographer of genius, and spymaster/intriguer on behalf of the crown. And last there's Anthony Wood, destitue archivist and Oxford historian. He seems to be the least involved with events, but it's Wood who surprises, explains, and has the final word.
Pears has wisely chosen an historical period that's just ripe with conflict possibilities: the plotting and counterplotting of Roundhead vs. Royalist; political, scientific, and religious zealousness; and the jockeying for position, patronage, and favor. An Instance of the Fingerpost also provides some fascinating digressions, including some interesting period forensics and medical practices. (Next time your eyes are bugging you, try applying powdered dog dung.) In addition to Dr. Wallis there's a wide scattering of actual persons (John Locke, Robert Boyle, Richard Lower), each with a small or larger role to play, and together with fictitious characters are displayed plainly in an appreciated listing of Dramatis Personae at the end of the book.
Pears also craftily adapts his language so as to be more readable to a modern audience without sacrificing period nuance, style, and color. I confess it certainly took me awhile to get through the book. If it read like Sam Pepsy's diary I'd still be picking away at it.
The curious title comes from a quote by Francis Bacon: When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, the Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided. These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of the Investigation will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed, these Instances are found amongst that Evidence already set down.
-NOVUM ORGANUM SCIENTARUM, Section XXXVI, Aphorisin XXI.
It calls to mind Archimedes shouting "Eureka" in his bathtub. The quote is also so suitable to the murder mystery I'm surprised I haven't seen it used before by another crime novelist. Unfortunately, I've yet to pin down exactly what a fingerpost is - sorry. An Instance of the Fingerpost transcends the conventional historical murder mystery the way Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey and Maturin saga transcends conventional nautical adventures. And those who know what an avid fan I am of O'Brian will understand that this is the highest praise and recommendation I can give.