I wish I could say I read somewhere recently an IT innovation would be available soon--some sort of software, I imagine--that would enable readers of genre fiction to select the components of a novel they're in a mood to read. Right now, for example, I fancy a crime mystery set in an unusual locale, featuring an unusual detective who allows me to accompany him/her in his reluctant-but-diligent struggle to solve a baffling murder amid a manageable number of likely suspects, some of them likable and some quite comically detestable. This novel would not be for everyone, I understand. Certainly not those who require a plot sufficiently complex to justify their years spent mastering ratiocination and the tortuous twists and narrative sleights of Golden Age-type who/howdunits and closed-door puzzles. Nope, albeit with a sincere nod of respect to the Grand Dame, the app-generated novel I’d choose might well use as its template Two-Faced Death, the second in Roderic Jeffries’s series of Inspector Alvarez Mallorca-based mysteries, which, by sheer coincidence, happens to be the one I’ve just read!
In a way it’s a somewhat ironic coincidence, as I nearly choked on the first in the Alvarez series halfway through when it seemed a couple of the template requisites were askew, leaving a plothole not even Clifford Irving could have patched. But my pig-headed nature goaded by nagging curiosity carried me through to the end, in the process setting the hook so firmly I’m afraid now I shall have to read the rest of them.
If I had to blame anything in particular for this infatuation it would be Lt. Columbo’s Mallorquin double, Inspector Enrique Alvarez. There are certain trivial differences. Alvarez doesn’t speak with a Brooklyn accent, and it’s been too hot in Mallorca to wear any sort of coat. The resemblance is more in attitude and style, even physical appearance, including sartorial nonchalance: “a squat, broad-shouldered man” who has trouble finding clothes that fit. “His shirt, even when unbuttoned at the neck, was tight across his chest: had he worn a tie, as regulations demanded, he would, in the July heat, have been exceedingly uncomfortable.”
He’s asleep at his desk as the novel opens, and is awakened by a phone call from his boss, Superior Chief Salas, who wants him to investigate rumors of cigarette smuggling. “He blinked rapidly and rubbed his eyes. What the hell was the time? He looked at his watch and saw it was four o’clock. Sweet Mary! he thought, with renewed irritation, hadn’t Salas ever heard of the siesta?”
Alvarez, while exhibiting no noticeable esprit for his job is nonetheless dutiful, and once aroused he plods into action. After musing to himself that his chief, being from Madrid, has no feel for Mallorquin customs, including common knowledge that petty smuggling has been an avocation of local fishermen for generations, he begins questioning local fishermen and bartenders about “rumors” of smuggling. These interviews are conducted cordially over generous glasses of brandy while smoking obviously smuggled American cigarettes. Everyone jokes about the Madrid chief’s ignorance, yet Alvarez methodically notes snippets of information until he identifies a local Englishman wheeler dealer who is most likely the banker who fronts money for the smuggling. Meanwhile a prissy investigator from the Bank of England is on the island looking into financial irregularities of English citizens who’ve taken money out of England without paying necessary fees. The British twit quickly homes in on John Calvin, the same wheeler dealer who’s aroused Alvarez’s suspicions. The plot quickens when Calvin disappears, leaving behind a sarcastic suicide note.
After a couple of weeks of dutiful searching, a body is found on a remote cliff top missing half its head and clutching Calvin’s expensive shotgun. Suspects abound for Alvarez, who is not convinced the death was suicide. In addition to being a money manipulator, Calvin was a notorious lothario who specialized in married English women. Author Jeffries, who lives on Mallorca, gives us sharply drawn caricatures of the island’s wealthy English society. Mediocre novelist Jim Meegan is my favorite. He might well reflect Jeffries’s own frustrations, at least providing us with some of the anxieties many fiction writers experience practicing their lonely craft:
"He stared at the page in the typewriter and reread the nine lines of type. They weren’t going to gain him immortality. Yet those nine lines represented two hours of work, two hours during which he had had to drag each word out, screaming, from the depths of his mind … The lion opened his mouth to roar and a mouse squeaked ...
"A drop of sweat trickled down from his neck. He watched it as soon as it came within his vision; apparently heading for the hairs on his chest, it suddenly and unaccountably swerved aside to slither down past his left nipple to his stomach. The sweat of Tolstoy and Dickens had probably run straight and true."
Compounding Meegan’s worries is the suspicion his overactive imagination embelllishes that his beautiful wife is one of Calvin’s conquests. He becomes a suspect once the death is determined to have been murder. An autopsy proves death resulted from asphyxia rather than the shooting. Alvarez already had ruled out the shooting as self-inflicted by examining the shotgun and discovering the fired shell had been ejected and then replaced in the breech. This told him someone had opened the gun after it was fired. It was one of various telling tidbits he collected in building his theory disproving suicide and pointing to murder.
Two-faced Death’s is not a complicated plot, yet it offers a couple of surprising twists. The main enjoyment for me was watching Alvarez and spending time inside his head as he methodically worked his way through the mysteries. Jeffries, himself a transplanted Englishman, has a comic touch that gives us an amusing glimpse of his countrymen in a culture that resents their presence while appreciating the wealth they bring to the locals. The English woman, especially, comes in for a drubbing in Alvarez’s eyes. “English women’s minds...were not only born to deceive others,” he tells us, “they were also born to deceive themselves.” He muses on his own domestic situation, feeling glad he never married. Then he chides himself. If he had married, he allows, he would have married his sweetheart, Juana-Maria,”and not in a thousand, thousand years would she have betrayed him, not even with a glance, let alone her body.
He mentions his relationship with Juana-Maria several times throughout the novel, alluding once to her death when a car crushed her against a wall, “killing her, so that all light, and even all terror, fled from her eyes.”
I must read further episodes, if only to learn more about Juana-Maria.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]