Lethe Press, 2009
This is a terrific read, and a bit of a departure from your typical gay mystery novel, in that while the story is set in the present, at its heart is another, decades old, mystery – did dark elements within the church assassinate Pope John Paul the first? So, then, consider this the kind of book Dan Brown might write, if Mr. Brown were just a little more gifted as a writer – and of course, supposing Mr. Brown wrote gay mysteries.
Therein, however, lies a problem for me. Because like Dan Brown's novels, this one is primarily plot driven rather than character driven, and anyone familiar with my writing history is surely aware of my bias in favor of character driven. How then do I write the unbiased and glowing review this book deserves, without turning what is meant to be about this individual work into a dissertation on the differences between the two?
Hmm. Well, for starters, I have to make clear that I refer only to my own personal bias, and that in reality, neither approach is necessarily and inherently better than the other. Yes, literary fiction will almost inevitably be character driven. Macbeth, as a prime example, is entirely about the fatal flaws in the characters of Mister and Missus Macbeth. Only have him say to her early on, "You know, hon, I don't think I'm all that keen on being king," and the story's over.
So, character driven is superior, right? No, not so fast there, Bucky. It's a rare and probably misguided author who doesn't give at least passing attention to the marketplace, and to a very great extent, plot driven fiction rules in the commercial arena. Not just Dan Brown's books, either, though it's kind of hard not to notice them. I would venture to say that at any given time, many – probably most – of the novels on the best seller lists are plot driven. This is in part because there are a great many readers who don't care a fig for enlightenment or coming to terms with themselves when they read, they want a story that keeps them turning the pages to see what happens next – and here, in general, is where plot driven fiction excels. Plot driven writers more often than not tell terrific stories. That is, after all, what they are focused on.
And before I leave this subject, about which entire books could be written, I should certainly say that the two often merge, as they do here, to some extent. In writing, as in life, things are not often altogether black and white.
Which brings me back to Murder on Camac (and none too soon, some of you are thinking). I said at the beginning, this is a terrific read, not the least for the pleasure of its intricate and solidly constructed plot (okay, I am surely entitled to just the slightest nip of sour grapes, since I could never do this.) The author has done a masterful job of weaving together two separate mysteries, that possible papal murder years earlier and the shooting death of a writer (the police think a mugging gone awry) said to be writing a book which will prove that past murder. Detective Marco Fontana is asked by the dead writer's partner to investigate the shooting and in no time he finds himself ensnared in a web of deceit and violence that threatens to add him to the bodies accumulating.
There's plenty of fast paced action, the tempo picking up nicely as the pages turn. I give high marks for pacing, a gift which seems to elude a great many writers, some of whose names often grace the best seller lists. And, let it be said, an essential element in plot driven fiction if you're going to keep those readers turning the pages. Too often, alas, in character driven fiction, there simply is no pacing. You can grow old waiting for anything to happen in a Barbara Vine novel, as one example.
There's a generous sprinkling of humor here to lighten things up just when the tension becomes horrific. The author has a gift for the pithy phrase and while some of the secondary characters remain insubstantial, the principles are all deftly brought to life (the fact that a book is not character driven does not mean it can't have viable characters.) The protagonist, Marco Fontana, is particularly engaging.
The author has an especially keen eye for his settings. If you've ever been to Philadelphia, you'll recognize it in an instant. If you haven't, you'll feel as if you've been there, smack dab on the cobblestone streets, by the time you finish reading.
Oh, there's a secondary thread running through the story: our detective also manages a line of male strippers. Yes, this business does sometimes get in the way, but not so as a lot of folks are going to mind.
The burning truth of the novel, though, is the inseparability of past and present, and the inevitability of your sins catching up with you. Time erases neither our mistakes nor our misdeeds. We may think we have put them aside, have left them safely behind, but they are always just outside the door of present consciousness, the sleeping demons, and who can ever know when they will awaken once again to bring us grief? For evil, there must ultimately be atonement. Our lapsed Catholic detective Marco Fontana retains far more of his childhood's faith than he cares to realize, and he's a far better character for it. And this reaching for the higher truth, not always a feature of plot driven fiction, elevates Murder on Camac to a higher level as well.
All in all, this is a stellar effort that will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next book in what should prove to be a popular series.