Serendipity is one of the funnest things about reading books. Sometimes a book pops up in an unexpected place, and it is more interesting than it would be if we were looking for it. Such is the case when last week, back from an adventure, I was at the local Dollar Tree perusing refreshments, when a garish cover stared out at me. A man with a machete held a scantily glad lady, somewhere in a jungle, while two brutish looking men pushed through some underbrush. This looked like some vintage pulp fiction, and indeed, the book was published by Hard Case Crime. But then my eye traveled to the author's name: Roger Zelazny. Roger Zelazny was a famous science-fiction writer, known for the Chronicles of Amber series. Why had a famous science-fiction writer written a noir detective story? I was intrigued, and bought the book, because one dollar is a small price to pay to have curiosity assuaged.
So, having described the book's odd province, let us describe the book's plot. Ovid Wiley is a art gallery owner, which doesn't sound too hard boiled, but he also used to be an art thief and a fence. One morning, he wakes up to find an acquaintance of his dead in his house. Not having a good alibi, he ends up in jail, only to be bailed out by the CIA, who want some help finding a Roman Catholic priest who absconded from the Vatican with several million dollars. If you were nodding while reading that synopsis, you are familiar with somewhat potpourri nature of the noir/thriller/espionage genre. Why is a somewhat antisocial art dealer used as a pawn in a game of espionage going from Italy to Brazil? Because it is awesome, that is why. As in many noir books, the book takes shifts between the glamorous and the gritty. The protagonist goes between jet-setting and romancing women to life-or-death fights in the jungle. He smokes lots of cigarettes and tosses back cocktails, never losing his steely resolve in situations that would cause lifelong PTSD for most people. And, at the end of the book, he solves the mystery, more or less, although I can't say I totally understood the conclusion.
The afterword to this book, written by the author's son, explains a little bit about the book. But not much. The manuscript was found in Roger Zelazny's effects after his death, with no information on when he had written it (although 1971 was suggested), or what had inspired him to write a book outside of science-fiction. The author's intent is of interest to me, because at certain points in the book, I did feel that I was reading something that might have verged on parody, or perhaps deconstruction. Most writers of espionage literature, if they have a motivation, seem to be motivated either by a desire to write about gritty Nietzchean supermen, or to write jingoistic propaganda. Zelazny, who didn't seem to view the manuscript as commercially feasible, must have had some other motivation. Without knowing more about Zelazny's sociopolitical worldview, it seems the book was written with the message that people living in an unknowable world have to stick to whatever principles they have, even if those principles are self-interest. The protagonist is mostly unaware of the true allegiances and motivations of those around him, as he is kidnapped, held prisoner, and manipulated to serve others. He is only aware of how they treat him, and he reacts accordingly. So, other than the action and intrigue, that is the message I picked up from this book.