Well, I guess this is it. I'm pretty sure that this is the last of Roger Zelazny's standalone novels that I have yet to cover. And I'll probably revisit some of the reviews (I was particularly disappointed with how my coverage of Doorways in the Sand came out) and perhaps give each of the Merlin books its own entry and maybe look some more of the shorter works, but there's no question that the review process is mostly over and that just makes me a little blue.
The Dead Man's Brother is unusual among Roger Zelazny's novels in that it's not a genre work. However, it's still a Zelazny story. I have a friend who proposed, half in jest, that due to the rise of "monsterized" classics, such as Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, that someone should "de-monsterize" classic horror stories. It reads like a Zelazny book, minus the supernatural/SF elements that have come to characterize most of his work.
Except, as Chris Kovacs pointed out, the fantastic is not entirely absent, and unfortunately, I think that's where the book is weakest. But more on that later.
Ovid Wiley is a former art thief turned respectable art dealer who finds a colleague from his criminal days dead inside his gallery. Ovid is accused of the murder, and told that the CIA can make his troubles go away in exchange for a little favor. What they want is for him to find a priest who stole three million dollars from the Vatican. So he jets off to Europe, and later to Brazil, learning that that the priest has apparently been killed, but determined to find answers from...The Dead Man's Brother.
I took my time reading it, because it's almost certainly the last "new" work we're going to find from him. It was completed in 1971 and unearthed only relatively recently in his papers. The thing that probably impressed me most is that it seems to have been rejected all over the place, but he never cannibalized it for other works. The rant Ovid receives from Berwick reminds me of the one Hell Tanner gets from Denton in Damnation Alley. Likewise, the sentiments about how intelligence received from spying is overrated mirrors a sentiment in Isle of the Dead, but both of those were written prior to Brother.
I don't think it's his best work, but like everything he's ever written, it has more than a few memorable lines and exchanges. I particularly like his description of the Rome of the day, with vespas weaving in and out of traffic, Ovid enjoying the play of sunlight on yellow plaster walls, of pigeons that bobbed at crumbs before a sidewalk cafe, of ropes of vines which escaped across a garden wall. Also: I did not attempt ahead before I left, as I would not throw a Roman telephone or a phone book at a screaming alley cat. They are just not accurate. Heh.
When I picture Ovid, I imagine him not as the man on the cover of the book, but rather as looking just the like the pictures of Gallinger from The Illustrated Roger Zelazny. (Same deal with "Nemo" from My Name is Legion, actually.)
The book is most enjoyable when it focuses on individual scenes or memorable characters. I like this vignette from Ovid after he survives an assassination attempt:
I once spent a day looking after my sister's kids. I took them presents to keep them amused and settled down with a book I was reading. Only I had made the mistake of giving my nephew Timmy a toy drum. After a couple hours, I gave him my pocketknife and told him that drums were usually filled with candy. That solved my problem for a small while, and I still remember shaking my head an telling him, "Yours was one of the ones that wasn't."
My head was a toy drum with no sweets inside.
My head was a toy drum with no sweets inside.
Walter Carlton the art critic was another vividly sketched minor character.
Short, stocky, near-bald and in his forties, Walt had come into a lot of money and abominable taste somewhere along the line and traveled about the world exhibiting both. Over the years, he has demonstrated an amazing ability to back losers and mock the truly talented. His articles and books arouse a sense of wonder in art history and art appreciation classes, where they are held up as models of half-assedness.
Ovid follows the clues and heads to South America, where he is tortured in a scene that goes on entirely too long. He tries to escape, fails, and is eventually released. He has a couple lucky breaks and finds what he's looking for. We get a lot of exposition at the end, and everything is more or less wrapped up.
I think there is a good book in here somewhere, but it has two main problems. Its structure and Ovid's "luck". We get very few clues about what's going on up until the very end, where everything is explained in a rather big hurry. This is something I find unsatisfying anywhere, but especially in a mystery novel.
The other is Ovid's luck, which Professor Berwick suggests may be some kind of measurable characteristics. It smacks of a "Plot Coupon" a literary device discussed in a fairly well-known essay at this link: Plot Coupons
From the piece: Up until very recently, really elaborate plotting has only been possible in comedy, where you don't mind being reminded of the existence of an author by the absurd artificiality of the structure of events. Real life isn't, on the whole, especially well plotted, and as soon as the good plotting in a story begins to get obtrusive we lose that essential impression of a purely internal logic governing the progress of events within the story.
The gist of that rather than provide a convincing explanation as to why things unfolded as they did, authors (fantasy authors primarily) will handwave an intrusive element. TVtropes calls it lampshade hanging when attention is called within the story to something that threatens the reader's suspension of disbelief.
The luck thing isn't as bad as I think I'm making it sound here. If not for Berwick's remarks, and the occasional observation by Ovid about his luck, I think it would pass entirely unnoticed, as extremely unlikely occurrences are a staple of detective fiction. It might have required a little more exposition or some rewriting to make things flow more smoothly, but I beleve it's something that could have excised without affecting the story. In fact, I think I would have found it a more satisfying narrative had this been done.
Overall? I didn't hate it. I think, as in To Die in Italbar, that the story could have benefited from a little tightening up here and there. The ending was fun and everything is tied together very neatly, though, as I said before, we don't learn very much until almost the very end. Also, I felt the afterward by Trent Zelazny was very nice, half introduction to book and half remembrance for his father.