Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: Dark Side of the Morgue by Raymond Benson (The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

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 Spike 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.

Dark Side of the Morgue is author Raymond Benson's second Spike Berenger novel. This Kindle edition (called The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits) contains it and the other two, A Hard Day's Death and On the Threshold of a Death for less than the price of one of the original paperback editions.

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.

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.

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). Benson obviously spent a great deal of time developing his musicians' relationships and histories, and the hard work pays off as Dark Side of the Morgue is an engrossing read that is as much for rock fans as it is for fans of conventional P.I. novels.

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