by Robert Lopresti
Yes, I know summer has passed. But I have been meaning to write
about these three mystery novels I read over the summer and I have
finally had a chance to do so. You can give me a low grade if you
want. But all three books are worth reading, and each gives me
something to complain about, which I find in late middle age is a very
A Corpse's Nightmare, by Phillip DePoy. Worldwide Mystery, 2011
My first encounter with DePoy was earlier this year when he wrote a story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, about
Fever Develin, a professor of folklore, laid off from the university
and now living in his old family home, deep in the hills of
The professor is the titular corpse in this novel. (And isn't
Fever Develin a lovely name, by the way?) On the first page
we are told that "On the 3rd of December, just before midnight, a total
stranger came into my home and shot me as I slept in my bed. I
died before the emergency mdeical team could find their way to my
As you might suspect, he doesn't stay
dead, thanks to a highly-motivated medical practitioner. But throughout
the book people keep referring to his killing and the murderer, which
he finds extremely creepy. And he has a lot of trouble telling
his coma-induced dreams from his somewhat surreal surroundings.
Because there are a lot of eccentrics in the vicinity of Blue Mountain,
and some of them are members of his family. It becomes clear that
the attack has something to do with the past and his peculiar
collection of relatives. I especially enjoyed the academic
discussions between Fever and fellow professor Winston Andrews, which
often seems to be no more than a way of coping with tension. I know people like that.
My complaint about this one? DePoy dances on a tightrope here --
is Fever really remembering things from his childhood or is there
something supernatural going on? -- and for the most time he does
it well, but at the end he tips too far toward the woo woo side, in my
opinion, providing one of those "ooh spooky" situations I strongly
("Ooh spooky" defined: A story has a possible supernatural element
which is cleared up with a materialistic explanation. Then at the
very end a superfluous bit of ghostiness is dragged in for
effect. To make up an example: "But wait, the killer said he only
lit the lamp twice and we saw it three times. There must have
been a real ghost! Ooh, spooky!" For some reason, TV movies are particularly susceptible to this.)
Spy's Fate, by Arnaldo Correa. Akashic Press, 2002
The Soviet Union has just collapsed, taking away Cuba's biggest trade
partner and source of foreign aid. The Cuban economy has gone to hell,
resulting in the nation's spy apparatus pulling back its revolutionaries from
Africa and Latin America, and the government tacitly permitting many people to flee to
the United States in any boat or raft they can find.
Carlos Manuel is one of those spies suddenly in from the cold, and not
getting a warm reception at home. His wife committed suicide some time before and his
grown children want nothing to do with him. But when he hears that his kids are heading toward America -- and straight into a storm -- he
risks everything to save them.
And finds himself in the U.S., very much on the run. The CIA knows a
major Cuban spy is in the US but has no idea what his mission is (in
fact, he just wants to get home). Making it worse, the head of the
CIA's Cuban desk is a man Carlos brutally maimed a decade ago in
Central America, and he will stop at nothing to get revenge.
My complaints? Threefold. First, you have to accept a Cuban spy who
has spent decades training guerillas as your hero. Some of us may have
a hard time with that. Second, with one exception everyone in the
Cuban spy agency is so nice to each other. I find that hard to believe about any intelligence agency. And finally, let's admit it, Carlos is a Mary Sue. He
can beat up an armed man much bigger than he is, speak unaccented
English, paint sellable landscapes, and learn to scuba dive in a few
days. What's Spanish for sheesh?
The Golden One, by Elizabeth Peters, Morrow, 2002.
We lost Ms. Peters this year, and I am still working my way through her
wonderful series about Egyptologist Amelia Peabody. They are not for
everyone, I am sure. I expect some people would find them fey and
unbearably slow-moving. (It can take a hundred pages for her to set up
her plot and get the first corpse in place.) But to me this comes off
as the confidence of a master.
When this story starts it is 1917 and Peabody and her remarkable family
have decided to stay in Egypt for the duration of the war, because
U-boats have made travel too dangerous. They would rather do nothing
but dig at a promising ruin, but the British intelligence service is
again trying to coax her son Ramses back into harness, and
this time they have a remarkable bit of bait: Sethos, the family's
foremost frenemy (say that three times fast) is either a prisoner
behind enemy lines, or has turned traitor. If Ramses can't get Sethos
out, someone will be sent to kill him.
And so we have two unrelated mysteries going on here: one
archaeological, and one espionage-ical. Okay, that isn't a word, but
which word works?
When Peters started to write this series I wonder if she noticed the
trap she was setting for herself. Namely: Amelia's husband Emerson is
supposedly the greatest Egyptologist in history, but she doesn't want
to credit him with true great
finds, stealing them from genuine archaeologists (some of whom appear
as characters in the novels). She deals with this, in part, by making
Emerson so egotistical, stubborn, and short-tempered that he offends
everyone who could give him permission to get near the great tombs. In
this particular book, she finds a different way to frustrate him.
But that is not my complaint. Here it is. Like Elmore Leonard and Ed
McBain my problem with her is that, as much as I enjoy her books, a
month later I can't remember what happened in any of them. Or more
precisely, what happened in which. Does anyone else feel that way?
Okay, that completes my book report. Don't grade too harshly.