The killing of a prominent California poet spurs an eccentric insurance investigator into action in Brown’s offbeat mystery.
The action of the novel begins in 1977 with the sudden death of Ickey Jerusalem, a wealthy, well-known San Francisco–based artist and writer who’s found suffocated in a bathroom cubicle in the first-class cabin of a 747. On the same flight is lonely, divorced Dedalus “Ded” Smith, the adult son of a workaholic accountant and a pious mother, who’s tired of his stagnant career as an insurance claims adjuster in Buffalo, New York. While deplaning, Ded is met by an acquaintance of his: San Francisco Police Detective O’Nadir, who lets him tag along to inspect Ickey’s body. This draws Ded into the homicide case, which is initially ruled a suicide, but as Ded interrogates other passengers—mostly from Ickey’s business entourage—several clues are revealed and several suspects materialize. Among the latter are Ickey’s lawyer, Bacon Urizen; the flight purser; Beulah Vala, Ickey’s sightless, “spooky” personal assistant; plastic surgeon Bromion Ulro; and Ickey’s chauffeur. Most of these people were traveling together for a weeklong event commemorating the publication of Ickey’s poetry anthology. However, as Ded diligently probes the members of the group for hints of delinquency, the novel takes a surreal turn as some interviewees bizarrely metamorphose into insects, goats, and pink cows; in addition, references to Plato’s cave allegory, the philosophies of Socrates, and assorted parables swirl throughout the proceedings.
The story itself eventually morphs into a study of not only Jerusalem’s evocative poetry, but also such topics as existentialism and the cyclical nature of human connection. It’s also kooky and funny; one scene, in which Ded voyeuristically spies on some hotel guests in an adjoining room, is deliciously animated. Complicating the case is Ded’s attraction to Beulah, who’s named the beneficiary of her boss’s $20 million life insurance policy. The trouble multiplies as Brown’s suspenseful and wildly strange mystery unfolds, although the lengthy narrative loses some steam before the culprit is finally revealed. Still, the author’s fusion of colorful murder mystery and philosophical rumination dips into and out of reality with dreamlike ease. As the six-part tale evolves, the investigation into Ickey’s death goes on a number of tangents at a very leisurely pace, delving into such things as the “verbal decoration” of poetry, the “exaggerated importance” of poets, religion, and Ded’s disastrous marriage, as he sifts through the misfit murder suspects. The protagonist’s sleuthing keeps the pages turning, and his intense personality contributes to the narrative’s frenetic, free-falling tone. Overall, it makes for an entertaining and fascinating reading experience, as Ded is alluring, smart, funny, and has a mind full of colorful notions. Brown, a self-admitted “lifelong devotee of William Blake,” considers his novel a contemporary “riff” on that seminal poet’s oeuvre. Readers who enjoy ruminative mysteries that are as ornately embellished as museum tapestries will enjoy this creative amalgam of art, San Francisco history, and deep suspicion.
A zany, inventive, and multilayered fever dream of murder and mayhem.