Note: This was one of three Hard Case thriller reviews I wrote years ago, but never got around to publishing it on Logic. I found the Word .doc a few weeks ago, so I’ll be putting them up here. But expanded a little: originally I had the idiotic idea to do three three-paragraph reviews per post, something I wanted to rectify with this blog.
Most people know Zelazny as the author of the Chronicles of Amber, a fantasy series about back-stabbing immortal siblings who fight each other for their father’s throne, and fend off the Courts of Chaos to keep that throne theirs. But this isn’t about that book. It’s about a Zelazny manuscript which was ostensibly written in 1971 and found a few years ago by his agent, published under the Hard Case label in 2009, titled The Dead Man’s Brother.
The plot revolves around Ovid Wiley, an art smuggler turned respectable dealer, who wakes up one morning to find an old partner of his dead on his gallery floor. Things get weirder when the CIA offers to clear his murder charge in exchange for a favor: fly to the Vatican City and track a rogue priest who’s made off with millions of the Vatican’s money. Ovid becomes even more enmeshed when the priest’s lover turns out to be Maria, former lover to his dead ex-partner in crime. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The best part about this book is that it feels like authentic old Zelazny. The tone of a competent, no-nonsense scoundrel enmeshed in a larger web reminds me of the first few Amber chapters, where the protagonist Corwin wakes up in a hospital with amnesia and must piece together his situation through wit and mindpower, and by conning his relations into not realizing he doesn’t remember them. Corwin finds out he’s Amberite royalty and goes off to make his bid for the crown, but I have the feeling Zelazny wrote it with a mystery-noir feel for a reason. The Dead Man’s Brother carries the same tone and resonance; Ovid reminds me a lot of Corwin in his unflappable nature, a stoic, rational character who is unperturbed by finding his ex-partner’s body on his floor. In short, I feel like this novel is what the first Amber book would be like if Zelazny had stuck with mystery noir rather than moving the plot into ’70s epic fantasy.
The cover—another slick one by Chuck Pyle—leads us to the novel’s climactic third act, the rainforests of Brazil. Ovid, armed with a machete, tries to protect his femme fatale from some Kalashnikov-toting smugglers. It feels authentic, like the cover to a ’70s crime/action novel, with all the right pieces. Ovid looks something like James Dean, circa 1950, but I guess “white T-shirt and jeans” is a timeless look.
Sadly, the book feels very rough and partly unfinished. Let me rephrase that. The book reads like an unfinished manuscript. Which, coincidentally, it is. Dead Man’s Brother feels a bit too average, lackluster compared to the Zelazny’s other works (and other crime thrillers). A bit muddled in the middle and unconvincing at the end. It’s still a solid read with a fast-paced plot, but it’s just lacking the spark of greatness. Perhaps that’s why Zelazny shelved it. In any event, it was a definite good read, and a good mystery, though don’t expect Zelazny’s Hugo-award winning writing from a long-lost unpublished manuscript.