Late Blooming Weaver of Spells

Among the most popular fiction published is the mystery/thriller genre. A study of people who bought at least one fiction book per year found that almost fifty percent bought a mystery or thriller. Or course it’s a capacious category.

Some people like the “little gray cells” stories of rational deduction featuring sleuths like Sherlock and Poirot. Others favor the mean streets of the hard-boiled offspring of Hammett and Chandler. By now the permutations are endless.

There are detective tales set in every country on earth and in historical periods from Rome to the present. Spy novels, psychological thrillers, comic crime capers featuring characters like Donald Westlake’s luckless thief, Dortmunder, and Elmore Leonard’s dim-witted thugs.

Some of my current favorites, authors whose next book I look forward to, are David Downing, Robert Wilson, Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. And then there are writers who pretend to work within genre conventions only to subvert them or bend them to their own purposes, to tell unexpected tales. In this regard, Michael Gruber ranks very high.

From his brief bio, he seems to be an interesting man. He;s now 75 years old and didn’t publish his first fiction under his own name until he was 63. Child prodigies like Mozart, Keats and Rimbaud are depressing for anyone over thirty. Late bloomers like Gruber give us all hope.

A born-and-raised New Yorker, he studied English at Columbia and then took a swerve and got a second B.A. at City College in biology and a Ph.D. at the University of Miami in marine biology. He has worked in restaurants, as a rock and roll roadie, a medic in the U.S. Army and as an environmental policy wonk in the Carter White House and as a bureaucrat and speechwriter at EPA.

In 1988 he left one Washington (D.C.) for another, taking an environmental land use job with Washington State. In his spare time he ghost wrote fifteen legal thriller in fifteen years that appeared under the name Robert K. Tanenbaum.

Approaching retirement age, in 2003 he began to publish under his own name, novels characterized by exotic locales, unconventional heroes and villain, unusual subject matter, wide learning, felicitous style, and thrills leavened by humor.

Three books feature a Cuban-American Miami police detective, Jimmy Paz, whose mother runs a Cuban restaurant, despairs of her son’s profession and bachelor state, and practices Santeria. This proves useful since Paz keeps running into criminals who seem to be in league with dark forces. Gruber’s taste for third world material often seems more appropriate to a cultural anthropologist than to a marine biologist.

“Tropic of Night” is deeply creepy. “Valley of Bones” is even better. It features Paz, but also Lorna Wise, a psychologist whose rational analysis collides with a patient who is either a murderous religious maniac or a saintly Catholic nursing postulant who is being framed. Nothing is as it seems. She is Emmylou Garigeau Dideroff, a classic character.

Emmylou has been sexually abused by her pillar-of-the-community police chief stepfather, has fallen in with drug dealers, descended to prostitution, yet also reads constantly and possesses an eidetic memory allowing her to interlard her tale of redneck woes with quotes from the likes of St, Teresa of Avila and this from Anatole France, “ The law, in its majesty, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

When Emmylou is asked to write a confession to a murder she did not commit, she composes one inspired by St.Augustine that confesses to her lapses form grace before she was saved by the Bloods. The shrink asks if she means the street gang of that name, and Emmylou laughs and laughs. Not for the first time Lorna is forced by Emmylou to confront the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in her philosophy.

In fact, Emmylou was saved by the Society of the Nursing Sisters of the Blood of Christ, founded by a French woman whose family trust fund, based on an oil fortune, has allowed the order to bend Vatican rules, fund its own mission to bring nursing care to war zones, and to be supplied by its own air force. Somehow we have crossed from gritty thriller to the Lives of the Saints. In such somersaults, Gruber owes a debt to the late, great Richard Condon.

Gruber’s most famous book is the sublime “The Book of Air and Shadows,” about a breakneck race by various competing factions to find what may or may not be the manuscript of a lost Shakespeare play in the master’s hand. Priceless, and worth millions, so the love of lucre rather than literature motivates several of he unsavory characters in this lovely twist on “Treasure Island.”

“The Forgery of Venus” is about art forgery and a lot more. “The Good Son” concerns a Jungian psychologist and peace activist who is taken captive by terrorists. Her son is a great disappointment to her since he is a former Delta Force soldier, as far from a pacifist as possible, but a useful man to have in the family when mom needs to be rescued.

Nothing in Gruber’s bio suggests he’s an exert on Jungian psychology, African religion, art forgery, Catholic holy orders, special forces ops, Cuban cooking, Elizabethan textual scholarship or a dozen other odd byways that pepper his books, but as you read him you believe every word. You laugh, you cry, you cower in fear and you suspect he’s a wizard.

You also feel you are in good company with a subtle, literate, humane entertainer. Throughout all his books there is a subtext, that the conventional wisdom is inadequate, that black and white distinctions are overly simplistic, that life is stranger and more complex than our blunt instruments can explain.

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