Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Dead Man's Brother

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.

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 afterword by Trent Zelazny was very nice, half introduction to book and half remembrance for his father.


  1. I've only read it once thus far and when I did, like you, I savored it, knowing that it would be the last "new" Zelazny novel. And I found that many times during the reading I was enjoying the comfortable experience of Zelazny's familiar voice, style, turns of phrase, and interesting characters. There are some excellent lines in there. But I also came to the reading knowing so much about what was supposed to be wrong with the novel -- from Zelazny's own comments, and those of the many editors who'd rejected it -- that when I too found the middle section to drag a bit, I wondered if it really was dragging or whether I couldn't help but think it dragged because Zelazny had said that it did. I was amused by the "luck" theme because I saw it as Zelazny being not quite able to let go of the fantastic even in what was supposed to be an otherwise mainstream novel. There were other moments that amused me too, such as the low level of airport security and the frequent smoking, but these things didn't throw me out of the story (as some readers claim happened to them); instead, these things reminded me of the time and place when this novel is supposed to take place. (Similarly, I enjoy reading the old mystery/thriller novels of Dick Francis and don't complain about the lack of cell phones or the reliance on telegrams that would render some of the plots ridiculous in the modern day.)

    I think overall that I agree with everything you've said about THE DEAD MAN'S BROTHER. It could have done with some tightening up here and there, and I believe that if Zelazny were alive today he would have done that before Hard Case Crime were allowed to publish it. I enjoyed it, I recognized its flaws, it wasn't the best of Zelazny's work nor was it the worst. I'm looking forward to reading it again sometime.

    There are some who have claimed that Zelazny wouldn't have wanted this published. But that notion is completely unfounded: this was a final manuscript that went to a dozen or more publishers in the early 1970s and was rejected by all of them. Zelazny wanted it published as is, and when it wasn't accepted, he got frustrated, shelved it, and declined to rework it. It certainly wasn't a rough draft of an unfinished novel that he hadn't intended to see the light of day.

    Chris Kovacs

  2. I find it mildly amazing that readers are complaining that too much smoking is immersion-breaking in a ROGER ZELAZNY novel written in the 1970s. And I thought some of my complaints were trivial.

  3. Indeed, one reviewer for Locus claimed to feel the need to take a shower to get the perceived stench of cigarette smoke off after reading the book. That's how ridiculous some of the criticism has been. And that same reviewer suggested that there was an ironic connection between the smoking in this book and Zelazny's early death from cancer. How outrageous and erroneous! Zelazny died from complications of colorectal cancer wherein at most smoking causes a slight increase in the risk of getting colorectal cancer and dying from it.

    The review and some commentary (including from George R R Martin, me, and others) is at: . I responded to the issues about the origin of the manuscript but used the "...And Call Me Roger" biography to address the mythology surrounding Zelazny's death from cancer. People still erroneously assume that Zelazny died of lung cancer as a direct consequence of smoking, when in fact he died from colorectal cancer.

    Chris Kovacs

  4. This is the relevant section that I composed for the biography, published in THE ROAD TO AMBER, Volume 6 of THE COLLECTED STORIES:

    Death, Cancer, and Cigarettes: a Retribution?
    Until recently, Wikipedia, the Internet Movie Database, and other
    on-line biographies said that Zelazny died of lung cancer caused by
    cigarette smoking. Other on-line commentary (none of which will
    be cited here, to avoid giving them credence) proposes that Zelazny’s
    premature death was retribution for a chain-smoking habit that he’d
    quit too late. He also appears in databases listing celebrities who died
    due to smoking. In a 2009 Locus review of The Dead Man’s Brother,
    Richard Lupoff cited the 1971 novel’s frequent references to cigarettes,
    adding that Zelazny’s smoking “surely contributed to, if it did
    not actually cause, his death at age 58 from cancer.”(102,103) George R.
    R. Martin responded to Lupoff in Locus Online, listing these facts:
    Zelazny switched to a pipe in the 1970s, quit altogether in the 1980s
    (there was a brief lapse), and died from colorectal cancer—not a cancer
    commonly associated with cigarette smoking.(104) However, neither
    Lupoff nor Martin was completely correct.

    Zelazny died from metastatic colorectal cancer and kidney failure;
    the cancer and chemotherapy combined to destroy his kidney function. There is a modest link between colorectal cancer and cigarette
    smoking. While most of the carcinogens in cigarette smoke are
    inhaled, a smaller amount is swallowed, increasing the risk of colorectal
    cancer. It is impossible to determine whether smoking causes any
    one person’s cancer or not; we can only say that the lifetime risk of
    developing colorectal cancer is 5.0% in nonsmokers and 5.9% in
    smokers.(105,106) Similarly, it is impossible to determine definitively if
    smoking contributed to Zelazny’s death from this cancer; we can only
    say that his risk was somewhat higher than a non-smoker’s.(105,106)

    For those who assumed retribution from Zelazny’s smoking history,
    there is no proof.

    102. Lupoff, Richard A. Review of The Dead Man’s Brother. Locus 2009; 62 (5 [#580 May]): p 26.

    103. Lupoff, Richard A. Roundtable: Zelazny Mystery (Review of The Dead Man’s Brother and Letter of Comment), 2009. Accessed: May 22, 2009.

    104. Martin, George R. R. Roundtable: Zelazny Mystery (Letter of Comment), 2009. Accessed: May 22, 2009.

    105. Botteri, E.; Iodice, S.; Bagnardi, V.; Raimondi, S.; Lowenfels, A. B.; Maisonneuve, P. Smoking and colorectal cancer: a meta-analysis. JAMA 2008; 300 (23): p 2765–78.

    106. Ahnen, Dennis J.; Macrae, Finlay A. Epidemiology and risk factors for colorectal cancer. In: Basow, Denise S., ed. UpToDate Online 17.1. Waltham, MA: UpToDate, 2009.

    Chris Kovacs

  5. I hadn't read the Locus piece until now, but while I was looking at some other reviews for The Dead Man's Brother, I came across a thread where you had responded to claims on Goodreads, and I am really impressed how tireless you are when it comes to combating misinformation about Zelazny.

  6. Thanks. I'd forgotten about that Goodreads thread. Somehow my statement of a few facts got twisted by one person into meaning something else altogether. But I think I clarified it in the end. I meant what I wrote, and not what someone imagined to exist in between the lines.

    Chris Kovacs

  7. The quality of reviewing/criticism has always been dismally low in the sci fi field, despite the occasional exception over the decades. Lupoff's review is typical -- it says far more about Lupoff than about the book. I wouldn't give it much weight.

    --Chris DeVito

  8. How time flies. I'd first read THE DEAD MAN'S BROTHER in October 2008, after receiving an uncorrected proof copy. And then it was released in paperback in February 2009. That's over five years ago! I find it hard to believe.

    I read it for the second time over the past two days. I'd remembered the itinerary of the plot - dead body at breakfast, New York to the Vatican to Brazil and home - but not many of the details beyond the discovery of the first body. And so I was able to read it afresh. I enjoyed it.

    I did find that it dragged again with the torture scene that just seems to go on and on without resolving anything. There's a long explanation about motives near the end. And there's some bits here and there that could have been cut out -- such as the scenes in Rome where Ovid has to kill time waiting for his first appointment. Was the author killing time to meet the contracted word count, by padding the scenes as he admitted in his correspondence about the novel? But then again, the writing there is interesting, classic Zelazny, and it also puts you into the scene. I can't complain too much about it.

    I've not sure if Ovid's problem is luck, exactly. He seems to be plagued by a devil and an angel whose efforts are almost exactly canceling each other out. Prior to the start of the tale, he's already been the only survivor of a plane crash. He refers to other incidents that have occurred over the years, and some occur in this novel. And then at the end of the book, his plane blows three tires, catches on fire, and he is the only one uninjured. Not exactly luck. More like someone doing their best to kill him, and someone else doing their best to thwart those efforts. A devil and an angel, for lack of a better description. Or maybe it's that he's balanced or poised, as he refers to a couple of times at the end, at mors januae vitae (the gates/threshold of life and death).

    Anyway, an enjoyable read. I'm glad it was unearthed and published.

    1. I initially read your last sentence as "I'm glad it was unearthed and UNPOLISHED", which also seems somehow apt.

  9. Oops. That should be I'm, not I've, at the start of the second-last paragraph.