Monday, February 2, 2009

The Dead Man's Brother by Roger Zelazny (Hard Case Crime)

"Asked by a psychologist I once knew what animal I would most prefer being if I could not be a man, I immediately replied, 'A tapeworm.' He had asked me before I'd had my morning coffee." (p. 85)

In the early 1970s, author Roger Zelazny was very interested in crime fiction. This bled into his own writing, which was primarily of a speculative nature. But when presented with The Dead Man's Brother (then called Apostate's Gold — get out your dictionary for that one), his agent and publisher were hesitant due to its lack of any otherworldly elements. They thought it would be a hard sell to his core audience primarily familiar with works like Lord of Light and Nine Princes in Amber.

Later attempts in the crime genre (the novel Today We Choose Faces and the connected-novella collection My Name is Legion) were sure to include the necessary speculative aspects, and so The Dead Man's Brother became Roger Zelazny's only completed novel to remain unpublished at his death. Leave it to pulp resurrectionists Hard Case Crime — who also brought David Dodge's sensational The Last Match up from the file drawer of oblivion — to finally allow it a place in the author's canon.

Former art thief–turned–art dealer Ovid Wiley is puzzled when the body of his former partner-in-crime Carl Bernini ("He deserved to be dead. A good man when it came to the Renaissance, though.") turns up in Ovid's apartment the morning after a crowded party. He calls the police and is immediately arrested and celled — until the CIA mysteriously gets him out.

They've set a task for him, and the payment is that they'll make sure any suspicion over Bernini's death goes away. All Ovid has to do is head to The Vatican and hunt down a heretic priest who has absconded with $3,000,000 of the Church's money. Why Ovid? Because the priest's girlfriend was Bernini's girl back in the day.

Before The Dead Man's Brother, I had read only a handful of Zelazny novels — the first few chronicles of Amber and the comic fantasy A Night in the Lonesome October — because of what I saw as the author's typically difficult, choppy prose style. This is also present in The Dead Man's Brother, but Zelazny overcomes it somewhat by keeping Ovid Wiley in nearly constant motion. This makes the reading such a brisk pleasure that I was only occasionally tripped up by clunky phrasing (particularly the author's habit of leaving out the coordinating conjunction usually encountered before the last element of a series).

The book also contains numerous quotable passages (like the one above), that just cry out to be read aloud to whomever else is in the room. The following passage from page 115 is a perfect example of how Zelazny combines these two disparate elements throughout The Dead Man's Brother: "[W]e set out driving, through what promised to be a beautiful day. The most recent day to have made such a promise having proved a liar, however, I remained skeptical." Once I had read it three times and finally understood the meaning of that second sentence, I knew it was something I had to share, but sometimes I just don't feel like doing that extra work, especially when reading for escapism.

I wished things would speed up a bit as the conclusion became imminent, but that's a minor complaint for what is essentially a well-done mystery-adventure. I especially enjoyed the conversations that Ovid had with other people in the art world. These respites from the action were a good window into the characters and a nice change from the usual occupations encountered in crime novels.

The Dead Man's Brother is by no means a perfect book; Zelazny would probably have done more cleanup had his agent and publisher promised to publish it back then. But it's the first solo Zelazny to see the light of day since his death, and it's from the era that produced some of his best works, and is therefore likely to be more appreciated by fans than the widely disappointing posthumous Jane Lindskold collaborations, Donnerjack and Lord Demon.

1 comment:

KentAllard said...

When I was a teenager and read a lot of sci-fi, I was a huge Zelazny fan, so I'm looking forward to getting around to this one.

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