ELIZABETH ZEVLIN’S FIRST NOVEL has all the ingredients of a delicious mystery: slightly goofy, i.e. charming sleuths, fascinating behind-the-scenes info, and a satisfying, slam-bang surprise ending.
Bruce is a recovering alcoholic who resides on-and-off at a residential detox center in New York’s Bowery full of really disgusting drunks along with employees who are either nasty foul-mouthed guards, or saintly Sisters of Mercy. Bruce’s co-sleuth Barbara is a nosy-parker employee/counselor at the center and, handily, Barbara’s boyfriend, Jimmy, who is also Bruce’s long-time best friend, is a computer hacker. (Whenever Bruce and Barbara need to get into some secret file, they just have Jimmy do it. How clever of Zelvin to make this conceit work splendidly.)
Bruce witnesses the sad death of a fellow alcoholic named Guff, a fellow he likes a lot though the other residents rather resent Guff since he’s rich. “Ivy League is not cool on the Bowery,” Bruce tells us. If Guff weren’t rich, he’d have ended up in a dive in Hell’s Kitchen, now becoming “fashionable Clinton.” Bruce further informs us that New York is always reinventing itself: “Hi, I’m Clinton, I’m a grateful recovering neighborhood.” Bruce, obviously, is damn funny. (But notice the punctuation error in his line of dialogue more on that later.)
After Guff dies in the cot next to Bruce’s, Barbara takes note that there have been a couple of similar unexplained deaths of decrepit alcoholics. It is her curiosity, Bruce’s sympathy for Guff, and Jimmy’s love and affection for the two sleuths that send them off to confirm their suspicion that Guff was murdered.
There follows ongoing clever deduction, plus great tension as the sleuths elicit information from dubious characters by pretending they are what they aren’t, and considerable suspense while the reader becomes entangled in Guff’s family secrets. We are three-quarters through the book before a second body turns up (three new bodies actually, one after the other, all directly connected to Guff’s family). First, Guff’s brother-in-law (a plastic surgeon) is clobbered, next his sister and finally the brother-in-law’s receptionist. I love it when a mystery writer saves all the really good stuff for the end. The climax is terrific because the author has left clues throughout as to who perpetrated the crime but hides them brilliantly.
So guess what? No forensics. I happen to be of the Joe Friday school of, “Send for the boys from the lab,” rather than the sort of mystery fan who loves autopsy gore and the vicarious thrill of carefully measuring the size of a maggot happily making its home in a stab wound to determine when death occurred. Yuck.
The behind-the-scenes stuff I mentioned earlier has to do with the nuts and bolts of detox, notably the slogans endlessly repeated, AA’s twelve steps, and how counselors and alcoholics alike know it’s all bullshit. It would seem that what the steps and mantras accomplish is to numb an alcoholic’s brain so he comes to see the value of self-examination the alternative is to be bored to death. I found it provocative. (Mind you, Zelvin stops the action midway to spend a page-and-a-half telling us, dear reader, that AA works. She must have felt guilty as she is a counselor herself.)
Now the downside: schlocky production on the part of the publisher as in no running headers to remind us who and what we’re reading, and unnumbered blank pages appearing at the end of chapters. (St. Martin’s Minotaur is no Alfred A. Knopf, senator.) But that aside, what is more egregious is that this author is in the process of learning craft. She has not yet mastered delivering a tale from the first person voice that requires managing scenes that take place out of sight and earshot of the narrator. Such skill comes from a great deal of study and practice, and I have no doubt that the author will eventually crack that nut I mean, look at how she leaves clues that you don’t notice. So five of the twenty-seven chapters, without any sort of consistency, drop Bruce’s narrative and point of view, and replace it with an omniscient voice that comes out of nowhere. The first time it happened, I thought, Uh-oh, is the author going courageously out upon a limb to show that something happened to Bruce? Then I thought, this is snarky we’re going to find out he’s dead. Then I figured that this whole thing was Barbara the sleuth writing a novel within a novel. I couldn’t believe it when I realized what was actually going on.
Incredibly, St. Martin’s Minotaur has bought and published a novel wherein the narration switches from first person to third person, back and forth, back and forth because the author hasn’t the experience to pull off what she needed to do. This when graduates of Iowa can’t get contracts! But hey, more power to Elizabeth Zelvin. She must have been a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Bottom line, you’ll enjoy Death Will Get You Sober if you are able to keep a resounding glitch from spoiling the fun.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written eight novels including the Poppy Rice Mysteries, and an acclaimed memoir, Girls of Tender Age. Her new book, Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery, written in collaboration with her son Jere Smith will be published on September 1. She is working on a Civil War novel.