'Twasn't sin that tempted me from the glory of Christianity back in the day, when, at a tender age in Wisconsin, I began reading a Gideon bible I'd found in a room of the old hotel my lawyer dad bought to convert into offices. The hotel had a particular charm, that of having provided a bed one night for John Dillinger and Billie Frechette on their way north to Manitowish for a weekend getaway with fellow gang members at the Little Bohemia lodge--or so old timers who had lived at the hotel back then and were helping Grandpa with the conversion claimed. We believed them. I did, anyway...
Where was I? Oh yeah, I'd taken one of the bibles home, wondering if maybe Dillinger himself had glanced at it, or, more likely, cursed and waved his .45 at it. With this hint of cachet about the neglected old book I started at the beginning, and began reading the goosebumpy fascinating stuff of Genesis with the familiar names and events in and out of The Garden, and was feeling a new thrill of wonder and righteousness. This lasted a few pages until I hit the desert of the begots: To Enoch was born Irad; and Irad begot Mehujael, and Mehujael begot Methushael, and Methushael begot Lamech...and it went on for a while, pages and pages and pages. Names that had never confronted me before and that I was afraid to try to pronounce even in my head, and on and on until I began wondering if maybe I had pushed my barely pubescent sensibility into some dark forbidden territory and I was going mad and...well, I ran. Ran like hell, I suppose, in the contextual vernacular, ran as fast and as far as I could get from the Judeo-Christian history of our species. And I stayed hidden from it for a long while. A long long while. And this might explain the second take I took looking at the title of one of my favorite crime fiction author’s books: Murder Begets Murder. I’d be lying, of course, to say seeing the word begets on the cover of a book I was about to read come hell or high water gave me a frisson leap backward of thrilling memory, and I do try pretty hard not to lie any more, as I subsequently, many years later, read most of both Testaments, excepting the begots, and consider myself today what the late Walker Percy called of himself a “wayfaring Christian.” But just now it occurred to me as a different sort of lead-in to a review of yet another of Roderic Jeffries’s three dozen Mallorquin mysteries featuring the delightfully predictable, lazy, brandy-loving, wily old Detective Inspector Enrique Alvarez.
As with a couple of the other Alvarez mysteries I’ve read, the story begins with Alvarez making only a cameo appearance unrelated in any way, it would seem, with the murder he eventually must solve. In Murder Begets Murder he's attending the wedding of friends, all local Mallorquins, where he overhears gossip among the women and reflects on the changing morality of the younger generation.
“Prosperity had eased people’s lives, but it had also destroyed some of their values,” he muses. “When there had been poverty, families had stayed together, neighbor had helped neighbor. Now, married children were no longer willing to have their elderly parents living with them and neighbor overcharged neighbor.” And at the next table “young men were flirting with young women and making them giggle and blush.
“Years ago, men and women never tried to behave like that–and if they had, the women’s parents would soon have put a stop to such dangerous nonsense. An illegitimate child was a sin beyond understanding. But these days, even in the streets of Llueso, one saw slips of women wheeling prams in which lay their little bastards. They might act as if it were nothing, but surely in their secret minds they must wish times had not changed so that they had not been exposed to temptation.”
Back at his office, we find him in one of his frequent meditations on life in general. This scene made me laugh aloud as it endeared me all the more to this very believable character: “Alvarez, sitting behind his desk, stared at the shaft of sunshine coming through the window in which was a multitude of dancing flecks of dust. It was tiring to watch such ceaseless activity.
“The internal phone buzzed. He ignored it and continued to stare at the dancing dust. Eventually, each single speck would end up on the floor, lifeless. Most of what a man did during his lifetime ended up forgotten...eyelids closed...his mind slipped into a delightful peace. The internal phone buzzed again, jerking him wide awake. Resentfully, he lifted the receiver.”
The call comes in Chapter Six with the narrative returning to Alvarez after having moved away from the wedding scene to concentrate on the supercilious and licentious concerns of the island’s transplanted English society. One of the English women has been found dead in her house, the detective’s unliked and unlikable captain tells him, and Alvarez leaves his study of dust and slowly hurries to the remote house to find the badly decomposed corpse. By now we know more about the woman than Alvarez, as she has been the favorite topic of gossip among the English expats. Unliked and unlikable herself, she’d been suspected of carrying on a secret affair while her purported lover lay abed upstairs apparently dying of some mysterious ailment. When he finally died, she gave the key to a lawyer with instructions to keep the house locked up, forbidding even the greedy, unlikable landlord to enter until the lease ran out in a month. The house was opened when the month was up, and there she was, dead on the kitchen floor.
The only clue arousing the detective’s suspicion was evidence the woman had eaten some clams as her last meal. Alvarez found the shells in the garbage. He subsequently learned that the woman’s dead lover had lost his wife supposedly to accidental poisoning back in England. Bad clams the suspected culprit.
But murders in Mallorca are rarely what they seem, at least once Alvarez gets involved. This one’s no different. By now, four books into the series, I’ve given up trying to guess whodunnit, or why, or even how. Yet the solutions make perfect, satisfying sense once Alvarez unravels the mystery with his unrelenting pursuit of what seem to be the tiniest motes of quirky evidence. Alvarez acknowledges the oddness of these cases, putting the blame squarely on the English themselves. “Sudden and unexpected death always raised questions,” he tells us, with a touch of humor, “but usually these were quickly answered: the English, though, forever ungraciously awkward, seemed unable to die straightforwardly.”
Meanwhile I remained fascinated by the unraveling of his character in matters uncommon to the stereotypical police personality. Girding himself to interview a woman who’s husband had just been killed in a suspicious car accident, he realizes he hates “himself, his job, and a world in which one person could be so terribly hurt…Alvarez had never been able dispassionately to observe another’s grief: he was far too emotional for that. So to an extent [the widow’s] tragedy became a tragedy for him.”
The interview does not go well, and at one point his questions push her too far. “‘God, I hope one day it happens to you,’ she said wildly.
“‘Señora,’ he answered sombrely, ‘many years ago just such a tragedy happened to me.’
“She put her clenched hand to her mouth and began to cry. In between sobs, she whispered: ‘Sweet Mary, I’m sorry.’
“He went over to her and held her against his side for a moment. ‘Señora, words are useless, or I would use a thousand. But gradually help will come through time.’”
I’m struggling to imagine Dirty Harry or Sgt. Friday in that scene.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]