||by Richard Stevenson (aka Richard Lipez, Ethiopia 196264)
St. Martins Press, $22.95
Reviewed by Tim Carroll (Nigeria 196466)
Potential land mine #1 for the reviewer of Richard Stevensons light-hearted murder mystery, Stracheys Folly, is the authors reference to a former Peace Corps volunteer writers network . . . . a web of several hundred people whose reach into U.S journalism and letters . . . [has] the grip of the Illuminati on eighteenth century Europe. Conspiracy theories aside (though not too far aside, since they are central to this oeuvre), just how far dare a critic tread on an author who touts the newsletter retaining your services?
Richard Stevenson has charm and panache and keeps the reader kiting steadily along through a few hours of escape lit. That the mystery is a little flimsy, the murder(s) a little lackluster, and the bad guys safely over the horizon most of the time, isn't a major drawback. Our hero is cleaner than most operating rooms. His spouse, the feckless Timmy, is sweeter than Nora Charles ever was, and the baddest guy we meet is: forty five or so with a chiseled face that was as hard and smooth as polished stone. His trim body has been carefully packaged in a black silk suit, and he wore a necktie with a subtle hued, kaleidoscopic design that I suspected might reflect his personality as well as his politics.
Isn't that frightening? But there's no faulting Stevenson's keen descriptive powers, especially if the subject is male (aside from a woman cop, there are barely any women in the novel. You can hardly count the dumpy Congresswoman from rural PA who bonks her Latino yard boys and then performs faux-Aztec rituals involving cows innards, all of a summer's afternoon): Hively, a muscular, pug nosed man with a shaved head and a mustache the color and shape of the pyramid at Chichen Itza . . .
Whatever else you might suspect the author of, being a Peace Corps writer would be high on the list.
As if to prove the point, Stevenson's prose rises handsomely off the ground when he has the opportunity to describe an outback Mexican village. His writing style isnt Ellery Queen or Agetha Christie; instead, its Major RPCV. And not only RPCV, but Early-RPCV, who, as a group, in the 60's, so focused on their bowels that it stamped indelible imprints on their brains and their writing ever since. It's worthy to note there is a new generation of RPCVs who hosted no parasites whatever. Opening up Eastern Europe may have put an end to the theme. Look for a new breed of nonintestinal RPCV writers coming to a bookstore near you.
If Stevensons idea of the Peace Corps is stuck in the 60's, even more so is his ideas of gays. Hence, land mine #2: to dare criticize the gayness of the novel. But this couple! They're like the Cleavers in drag. We have the problem-solving male detective and his spouse with vapors. Poor Timmy. So frayed are his nerves over conspiracy-fear that perhaps sending him home to Albany would be best for him. Strachey and Timmy are the same-sex version of Ralph and Alice Kramden.
Further, this reader found the details of their bedroom menu a layer of homo-hormonics that was totally unessential to his beach read. Even in this era when family newspapers chat happily about oral sex and semen, a serious dick (aka P.I.) can't playfully discuss stuffing assorted genitalia in his mouth and hold much of an audience. To paraphrase our philosopher queen, Tina Turner: What's plot development got to do with it?
There are a series of little glitches. Suspending disbelief is ticklish when four Congressman sell their votes in return for sexual favors. In this era of freebies on the Hill? Again there's a ring of the 60s in Stevenson's chimes. Equally unbelievable are the murders, which lack any descriptive punch or gore. His Dickensian urge to create names like Krumfutz and Vicknicki might be overlooked if he would also trust his reader to have a decent sense of recall. He reviews the plot on pages 50, 80, 113 (here it is thought to thicken), 129 and 134. Oh yes, the plot: sexy Hill aide, hidden in Mexico, has answers to drive-by shoot-up.
A successful thriller offers an implicit promise to readers: that they will, in some way, be thrilled. To thrill, a mystery must be choreographed to spin out the enchanting complexities in a rhythm that builds like good music or, to employ the grinding interruptus of this narrative, good sex. The failure of that natural rhythm is felt here by the reader, who knows something's out of whack when, on page 200, with only 16 to go, there just isn't time left to spell it all out and get that frisson you feel when your narrator has satisfied your inner ear.
That irregularity, plus plot review and parenthetical asides, irritate rather than enlighten. One loses confidence in a narrator who disrupts the rhythm and yanks the reader out of that lovely state of un-self-consciousness into which one burrows when having a good read.
Stevenson has found comfort, and sales, in a narrow demographic band and plays to it: Proudly liberal (our hero notes the hard-hearted harangues of Jesse and Newt) and urban gay. One applauds his nicheing skills.
But this novel, like one of its minor baddies, Ulmer, is a bit of a wuss who couldn't be trusted. Not your rocko socko detective story, it's more like Howdy Doody Meets Ken. In a bath house. With gun play.
Tim Carrol served for several years in Poland and Russia (199195) as a Peace Corps Country Director. He currently works for the Justice Department is Washington, D.C.