By Stuart Holland. Cambridge: Vanguard Press, 2002.
There is a subtext common to many mystery and horror novels: the reestablishment of normalcy. Sexual perversion and dire crimes against (human) nature abound and disrupt the accepted state of affairs. Order must prevail, and often in the battle between justice and revenge the latter must be sacrificed for the former. It is no small irony that so many prototypical detectives are outsiders, usually lonely, solitary figures with at most a chronicler or sidekick to share and relate their tales. Holmes and Watson.
Writers of mystery fiction are not unaware of these conventions and the conservative nature of the genre; some in turn choose to play with expectations, others to subvert them. A generation of so-called “lesbian detective” novels fit into this mold, often replacing the hard-boiled, boozing, womanizing male detective with a female of similar habits. These usually maintain the other elements of the genre so as to provide a balanced or proportional work; in other cases conventions are taken to extremes or subverted so heavily as to produce parody or caricature, but when the formula is followed but only incompetently, and the author’s prose is substandard to boot, only dissatisfaction can result.
Such a feeling of being cheated greets the reader who picks up Stuart Holland’s Rite of Death (2002), another in a series of “Damian Palmer Investigations” published by Vanguard Press (an imprint of Pegasus Elliot MacKenzie Publisher Ltd.). The setup is quick and to the point: a man has been murdered, his wife stands accused (caught with the murder weapon in her hand), and it is Damien Palmer’s job to find evidence that she is innocent. His investigations lead him to a pornographer brother-in-law, a seductress sister, more than one person who wants him to drop the case, and enough red herrings to open one’s own canary. Too many real clues are dropped too early and made too obvious: the legal assistant’s involvement, the sister’s left-handedness, the talk of sects and orgies, the obvious anagram. Other mini-puzzles, such as remembering who had hired the solicitor, and connecting the name of the daughter from one case to a character in the main case are obvious to readers but the protagonist, whose powers of deduction are praised early and often, seems to miss them. Yet at the same time another character has insightful, essentually supernatual, dreams that only distract from the task at hand by introducing narrative sloppiness and unnecessary mumbo-jumbo.
Many “deductive detective” stories have been criticized for presenting investigators who are magically able to piece together seemingly random clues into a whole tapestry, whereas the average and even above average reader is left wondering, “where did s/he get that from?” Holland’s novel, however, suffers from the opposite malaise. A third option, one almost better suited to a thriller, allows the reader to know more than the protagonist, but to have these gaps in knowledge result in suspense and danger. Sadly that is not the case here, for the stakes are never that high—at the worst, we learn, the real killer might kill once or twice more (but kill folks for whom we have no sympathy) and then escape, but the wrongly accused will eventually be freed. This is not to say that the potential for tension does not exist in Rite of Death, but because it is found only in the red herrings, it is quickly diminished and dismissed. Damien Palmer, for example, receives a warning that any future investigations on his part will result in him experiencing a “considerable loss” (94), but this is the last such threat, a threat that never materializes, and it is less than halfway through the novel. Yet in the chapters that follow, Damien’s girlfriend, Karen, plays an ever growing role and is often left alone, yet the potential for fear for her wellbeing is never exploited. There is furthermore no fear that an innocent party (except insofar as the accused is innocent of the crime for which she has been charged) will come to harm and no urgency. At the same time, background details related to the narrative remain underdeveloped, such as Damien’s memory of a previous case and a young woman’s “EROS” tatoo; though this detail seems to have importance to the case at hand, it is never explored by the narrator or the protagonist.
Inefficient writing compounds these problems. Early in the novel Damien reflects upon the death of his father; mere chapters later the death of his father is described again. Redundant exposition and description abound, and the dialogue is generally flat; the capturing of boring conversation only serves a purpose if it describes the situation or characters, but here it is mere filling—it is highly uneconomical.
Vanguard Press states:
Were the publishers to take this claim seriously, they would truly provide their authors with the resources necessary to produce books that all involved could be proud of. Those resources are constructive but tough criticism and editors who can improve both the form and the content of the manuscript under consideration; sadly, they were both lacking in this endeavor.
In the end we the readers are left with another conventional and conservative mystery novel, albeit one not best suited to represent the genre. The pornographers will be rightly punished (for it is stated that such behavior always leads to greater evil—moral superiority is always at hand), many attractive young women are shown only to have been unwilling puppets, and the protagonists return to lives of normalcy, complete with hints of settling down into standard relationships. Our outsider detective may break the mold after all.