Thursday, July 1, 2010

Like the Da Vinci Code (but without the Stupid Puzzles): a Review of The Dead Man’s Brother

cover_big Title: The Dead Man’s Brother
Author: Roger Zelazny
Year: 2009 (written ~1971)
Rating: 2/5 phallic machetes
Categories: Unchallenging Thriller, Male Fantasy
Back Cover:

Once an art smuggler, now a respectable art dealer, Ovid Wiley awoke to find his former partner stabbed to death on his gallery floor.  That was strange enough—but when a CIA agent showed up to spring him from NYPD custody, things got a lot stranger.

Now the CIA is offering to clear up the murder charge, but only in return for a favor: They want Ovid to fly to Vatican City and trace the trail of a renegade priest who has gone missing with millions in church funds. What’s the connection? The priest’s lover, a woman Ovid knew in his smuggling days…

When I was about 13 years old, I found a collection of short stories in the library of the Catholic school I attended that contained something that you could almost consider a sex scene.  The collection was Unicorn Variations and the thrill of juvenile transgression it engendered—that sweet, hot blush of shame that only the lapsed Catholic could ever understand—seems to have transformed me into a Zelazny fan for life.  So when I heard that a previously undiscovered Zelazny manuscript, unpublished for close to 40 years, was going to see a posthumous printing thanks to the excellent Hard Case Crime series, there was never any doubt that I was going to read it.  You could hardly even call it a choice…more of a compulsion.  A wicked sin I was helpless to resist.

Zelazny won 6 Hugo Awards and 3 Nebula Awards for his science-fiction, and as far as I’m concerned, he deserved them all.  But early on in my enjoyment of his work, it had become obvious to me that there were almost two Zelaznys.  There was the experimental Zelazny, the student of literature, who used his novellas and novels to explore themes like mortality, will, and our relationship to myth and story, who tested the limits of his genre and helped to define the New Wave of American sci-fi in the late 60’s and early 70’s, AND THEN there was the indulgent, five-finger-exercise Zelazny, who (imaginatively, at least) articulated the rambling adventure fantasies of 13 year old boys.

The Dead Man’s Brother, though it was allegedly penned shortly after such masterpieces as Lord of Light and Isle of the Dead, was regrettably written by that latter, lesser Zelazny who vomited up such guilty pleasures as Damnation Alley and a good portion of The Amber Chronicles

While Zelazny often made a point to walk the line between sci-fi and fantasy, The Dead Man’s Brother is the only published crime novel he ever wrote.  I’m not sure if I hope there are more undiscovered crime novel manuscripts or not.  I’d read them, of course.  The problems with the novel, however, do not stem from any lack of familiarity or facility with the genre.  In some respects, Zelazny’s writing style is extremely well-suited to crime.  His heroes have always been a bit hard-boiled.  They’re often noir-ish, selfish smartasses who won’t hesitate to deliver a cheap shot if given the chance.  They’re often motivated by revenge when it does not conflict with self-preservation. 

The problem with the novel is that there isn’t anything to it except the selfish smartass.  The plot (which consists of the hero tracking down, under duress from a blackmailing CIA agent, a renegade priest who has disappeared deep into the Brazilian jungle with loads of Vatican cash) moves along quickly enough but without any real development.  The hero is the same at the end as he was at the beginning.  No literary experimentation.  No genre deconstruction.  No intellective engagement.  None of the characteristics that identify a novel as Zelazny operating at his peak, and at about 250 pages, especially for a slow reader like myself, you could hardly categorize The Dead Man’s Brother as a quick read.

So read it if you’re a fan of the author or a 13 year old boy, but otherwise you should probably steer clear.

NB I’m not making any excuses for the retro cover art painted by Chuck Pyle for Hard Case Crime, though.  That’s unconditionally awesome.

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