BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Gerald Elias
Filed under: Mystery
These days, writing a solid mystery is often not enough for an author trying to distinguish himself from the pack—he has to include a gimmick. Of course, I only call it a gimmick when it doesn’t work, such as the annoying Indian detective Vish Puri, or the defense attorney who becomes a special prosecutor for just one case. When there’s an interesting book behind it, a gimmick feels more like a unique frame for a good story—such as Millard Kaufman’s excellent tale about a real estate agent who gets embroiled in a murder.
As these things go, Gerald Elias’s Danse Macabre is extremely gimmicky, because the story at its core is cliched and poorly written. Instead of framing an interesting story, the gimmicks, plural (there are three), only draw attention to Elias’s poor judgment.
In Elias’s first gimmick, the mystery takes place in the arena of high-grade music, specifically concerning the death of the world’s best violinist. Elias is himself a violinist and music professor, so this makes sense. But Elias doesn’t stop there.
Gimmick two: the amateur detective on the case is a revered music teacher and an old friend of the murdered violinist—he and his students take it upon themselves to find the true killer. It’s an uninspiring twist, especially since this is evidently the second novel that features the amateur professor detective and a music-centric mystery.
Gimmick three: that professor, Mr. Jacobus, is blind. His blindness, however, doesn’t hamper him at all (he doesn’t even need a cane), and neither does it uncover any special leads in the case. It’s a detail that simply, bafflingly exists—like an orange peel on a nice steak—making you wonder what the hell you’re supposed to do with it.
For me, these gimmicks, while certainly revealing an author desperate to distinguish himself, also showcase his poor judgment. And once you realize that poor judgment is what defines Elias as a novelist, you find it everywhere.
After the soon-to-be-murdered violin virtuoso’s last performance, Jacobus and friends sit around during the reception and note:
No critics were there, as they assuredly were sharpening their pencils for the review, but they knew if they dared criticize Allard, who was second to the American flag in the hearts of the public, their jobs would have been in jeopardy.
That ridiculous paragraph is laughably out of touch. A few things it asks us to believe: 1) the American public would grow to love a French violinist more than any other celebrity; 2) violin fans love the American flag more than anything else; 3) critics who attack popular stars would be fired instead of hated all the way to the bank (cf. all the press Armond White gets, for nothing more than panning good movies).
Another, more important example: in the novel’s opening, one of Allard’s students is arrested for his murder, and despite the fact that there is no murder weapon and only circumstantial evidence against him, he’s convicted and put on death row. (A mini-bad judgment along the way: the convicted student is black, and Elias—whose whiteness oozes from his prose—conveys his race by giving him the name “BTower” and having him say streetwisey things like “‘Didn’t say shit,'” despite the fact that he’s rich and well-educated.)
The mystery doesn’t begin until two years later, when BTower is five days from being executed for Allard’s murder. BTower’s lawyer visits Jacobus, presumably for the first time in two years, and in five minutes convinces him that BTower is innocent and that Jacobus needs to do whatever it takes to set him free. Never mind the fact that Jacobus campaigned to get BTower locked up in the first place, even testifying against him at trial.
Is that a confusing setup? Yes. Is it unrealistic? Definitely. Also unnecessary? For the trifecta! How about this: the police arrest BTower, but Jacobus—who resents BTower’s fame but remembers the likable kid he used to be—resolves to find the real killer before BTower gets convicted. You’d have the same sense of urgency, better motivation, and a story that felt mildly realistic.
Elias chose to do it the hard way, I’m guessing, in order to show the scenes of BTower preparing to die (mystifyingly, those scenes are written from the perspective of the chucklehead guards watching him on CCTV).
Anyway, I could go on and on with examples, but they’re all basically the same. In sum: Elias has, frankly, little talent as a writer, let alone a mystery novelist. The plot itself is composed almost entirely of cliches, and the narrative is bizarre and disjointed. The characters are cartoonish when they’re not wooden, except for sour, mean Jacobus, who charmlessly insults everyone around him, and manages to suck the last morsel of enjoyment from Elias’s prose.
Do not read this book.
Similar reads: As I mentioned, The Reversal, by Michael Connelly, and The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, by Tarquin Hall, are similarly bad gimmicky mysteries. Misadventure, by Millard Kaufman, is a phenomenal read, featuring a well-executed gimmick.