Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Dark Side of the Morgue by Raymond Benson (prog-rock mystery)

Oddly enough, I got this book because I'm excited about an upcoming book. Raymond Benson is one of six authors tapped to write for the newest venture from Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai: pulp adventure novels in the old style featuring a new character, Gabriel Hunt.

I've been highly anticipating this series since it was first announced because the other five authors (Ardai himself, David J. Schow, Christa Faust, James Reasoner, and Nicholas Kaufmann) have proven themselves to be quite skilled at fast-paced narratives. Benson is the only one I'd not read before, so when I saw that his second Spike Berenger novel, Dark Side of the Morgue was available, I leapt.

Part of the attraction came from the concept of a rock and roll P.I. Spike Berenger used to be in a progressive rock band called The Fixers, but they didn't last long (though they still have some devoted fans). Now Berenger and his partner Rudy Bishop run Rockin' Security, a service for the music industry. Berenger also has his private investigator's license because it sometimes helps with business. Suzanne Prescott, a former Goth devotee now into Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) and martial arts, is his investigation partner.

A blonde wearing sunglasses and a big, floppy hat has been killing members of Chicago's prog-rock scene (known locally as "Chicagoprog"), and Zach Garriott (guitarist and vocalist for the seminal bands North Side and Red Skyez, but gone solo since 1980) wants Berenger's help finding the suspect — he's on the list. The trouble is, the main suspect is Sylvia Favero, and she's been dead since 1970.

Berenger, a little bored with his current caseload involving Iggy Pop's dogs and Debbie Harry's landlord, decides to take the case, partly because he's friends and former colleagues with many of the participants. Here, Benson's knowledge of the prog-rock industry serves him well (he wrote The Pocket Guide to Jethro Tull and is himself a composer and songwriter). After a long exposition introducing character relationships and band histories, Benson's feel for the high points brings authenticity to the story and never feels just like some guy trying to write a rock novel. (A Chicagoprog "family tree" at the front of the book is great for reference, and the table of contents is actually a "track listing" of song titles.)

Dark Side of the Morgue is funny, disturbing, and filled with deep knowledge of the music industry and abnormal psychology, all combined to make a really terrific read that I wanted to pick up whenever I had a free moment. It is assembled from P.I./thriller tropes we've seen many times before, but Benson has put them together in a way that feels fresh and original, and results in the reader responding to them as if they were brand new (a skill no doubt useful in his upcoming Gabriel Hunt novel, Hunt through Napoleon's Web).

Also speaking well of his skill at adventure, Benson is the author of six recent original novels featuring Ian Fleming's James Bond — only the fourth author chosen to do so — in addition to the first two Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell novels (written under the pseudonym "David Michaels") and other thrillers like Sweetie's Diamonds and the first Berenger "hit," A Hard Day's Death.

My only real complaint is that protagonist Spike Berenger is the least interesting person in the book. But Berenger's transparency allows the supporting characters to truly shine (for example, in how Prescott's T.M. skills actually figure into the plot instead of being just an interesting character quirk). Dark Side of the Morgue is an intelligent mystery with a twist as layer after layer of the story is slowly revealed to the reader's joyous satisfaction.

Benson obviously spent a great deal of time developing his musicians' relationships and histories, and the hard work pays off in an engrossing read that is as much for rock fans as it is for fans of conventional P.I. novels. Honestly, Dark Side of the Morgue is so good that if it's not nominated for both the Edgar and the Shamus awards, somebody's just not paying attention.

1 comment:

B McMolo said...

I got this and "Hard Day's Death" for Christmas, but this is the one I read first. Just casting about the net for reviews/ other reactions. I enjoyed it, as well, though I felt the same way at times about Spike's not being the most interesting character in the book.

I've really got to read "Hunt Through Napoleon's web" next. (Well, after I read "Hard Day's Death."

Related Posts with Thumbnails