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Newsletter #60 December, 2002 - February, 2003

Mystery Reviews
by Jeff Hatfield

        Though penned by scientist and hard SF novelist the late Dr. Charles Sheffield, Uncle Edgar's has claimed as it's own The Amazing Dr. Darwin (Baen $24). These six stories (plus introduction and enlightening appendix) are indeed science fiction --- but it's not futuristic, it's 17th Century. Get past the unfortunate and somewhat misleading dust jacket, and you'll discover an enjoyable collection that's foremost Sherlockian in nature.
        With the demonstrated success of the historical mystery over the last several years, many actual historical figures have been thrust into the role of fictional detective. If you've been paying attention you could probably rattle off a half dozen names yourself. However, Sheffield makes the best choice by having Dr. Darwin as the hero of these puzzling adventures. It is the most appropriate, and literally the most natural, selection. But not that Darwin ---it's his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
        The eccentric and ever curious Darwin lived at a time when superstition continued to give way to the Age of Reason. It was the early dawn of the Industrial Age. A man of diverse and substantial accomplishment, Englishman Erasmus Darwin was a physician when the word meant Natural Philosopher and not just sawbones. Perhaps he was most renown for his amazing diagnostic talent. In addition to Sherlock Holmes and O'Brian's Dr. Stephen Maturin, Darwin as a character will remind the reader of Nero Wolfe. He's obese with a pockmarked face, missing his front teeth, and people seem to be always giving him food. "Eat or be eaten" was one of his mottoes.
        All stories originally appeared in magazines. And the author kindly warns us in his brief intro that: Statements contained in the Appendix (where fact is separated from fiction) reveal plot elements of each story. We can expect a paperback edition in June.

        Veteran and accomplished reader-pleaser Stuart Kaminsky's latest P.I. Toby Peters novel, To Catch a Spy ($24), includes Cary Grant as featured player and client. What prompted me to pick up his latest bit of light and humorous entertainment wasn't the fact that I've always been a big Cary Grant fan. Nor that over the years I've read (Yikes!) all of the now twenty-two Toby Peters adventures. What set me off was noticing that years ago Sara Paretsky dedicated her first novel Indemnity Only to --- Stuart Kaminsky.
        In WWII Hollywood, Grant has quietly checked out Toby's reliability and hires him to simply deliver a package and pick up an envelope from a man in Elysian Park at night. But when shots ring out, Toby finds himself with a dying man's last words in his head, a corpse, and another big lump on his noggin. Over a long string of cases Toby has been hit hard over the head more times than Homer Simpson. Only this time he and his doctor have finally recognized the fact that the P.I. should have been dead a dozen times over.
        In pursuit of a murderer, Toby and the imperturbable and acrobatic Cary Grant, follow a trail of clues that lead them to another dead body and a rat's nest of Nazi fifth columnists. The climax, on the grounds of an estate high above Laurel Canyon, is a literal cliffhanger and is remindful of a certain unforgettable Hitchcock film.
        Once again Toby gets some help from his friends: wrestler and now poet Jeremy Butler, hapless dentist Shelly Minck who shares his office, Swiss little person and translator Gunther Werthman, and his ditsy but well-meaning boarding house landlady.
        Not quite zany. Not quite riotous. And not quite memorable. Still, To Catch a Spy is a lot of fun.

        It's a thriller that's well written and well paced, with a strong and apparently attractive hero in an exotic setting. It also won the Crime Writer's Association New Writers' Award. But I still had trouble with Caroline Carver's Blood Junction ($24.95).
        Sydney journalist India Kane travels to the outback town of Cooinda to meet up with Lauren, her best friend and a fellow journalist. India doesn't know about the town's dark history. Forty years earlier, an entire aborigine family of five had been massacred. And the locals renamed the town Blood Junction.
        When India's car conks out en route, she's picked up by an off-duty cop and soon discovers that Lauren has disappeared. The next day the dead bodies of Lauren and the cop who helped India are found in his car. In a rush to judgement India, the last person to see the cop alive, is arrested for murder.
        Circumstance sets India on the run from the police and an unknown killer. As she investigates Lauren's murder she turns up suspicious connections to a mysterious cosmetics company, the bloody massacre years ago, and her own shadowy past.
        I was reminded of a recent essay by noted author Jonathan Franzen who decries "academe's canonization of third-rate but politically correct novels". Though Blood Junction does in a way serve as an example of this, it's still acceptable.         Also, in a niche somewhere at Uncle Edgar's is posted this classic gripe from Samuel Johnson; "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." One of the primary mysteries in Carver's story was used and explored years ago by Australian novelist Arthur Upfield in a classic Napoleon Bonaparte title. Though troublesome, this too can be accepted.
        The obstacle I couldn't get around is that Carver uses the literary convention of the deus ex machina not once, nor twice, but multiple times when saving her endangered hero India Kane. Perhaps it's me, after all this is an award-winning first novel. And other readers may more readily dismiss these criticisms. But too much is simply too much.

        I hesitated reviewing two time Edgar nominee John Katzenbach's The Analyst (Ballantine $25, $7.99 pb due early February) when it came out last February for a few reasons. It was already getting plenty of media attention based on its own merits. It came out close to the release of the Bruce Willis feature movie Hart's War (Ballantine $6.99) based on Katzenbach's more recommendable prior novel. And I had trouble with certain aspects that seemed to defy plausibility.
        Manhattan psychoanalyst Frederick "Ricky" Starks has just turned fifty-three and is preparing for his annual vacation when he discovers a threatening and mysterious letter on a chair in his office waiting room. An unknown tormentor (male or female?) accuses him of ruining his life, and gives him twenty days to commit suicide or one of his innocent relatives will be destroyed.
        Who is this hate-filled former patient? And why has this shadowy psychopath made him a target? So begins a diabolical game and desperate race against time as Dr. Starks frantically struggles to answer both questions, while his clever and vengeful attacker systematically ruins him financially and professionally.
        The Analyst is very character strong and cinematically plotted; though I expect it will prove less than memorable. I found it interesting that the chosen title apparently evolved from Dr. Stark's Last Vacation to The Analyst's Last Days to the more prosaic The Analyst. It also made me wonder if the author had come across the paperback original novel The Final Analysis of Dr. Stark by Joseph Telushkin and published by Bantam in 1988.
        So The Analyst has my qualified recommendation. And while a limited number of first edition hardcover are still available, I'll be more comfortable pushing it in February when the paperback is expected.








                                                                        

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