The Reluctant Matador
A Hugo Marston Novel
Mark Pryor
(Seventh Street Books)
Blind Moon Alley
John Florio
(Seventh Street Books)
Hugo Marston is a detective out of the Conan Doyle picky-detail school. He observes your muddy boots and a glop of cheese cake on your sleeve, along with the scar on your upper left cheek and the bank receipt sticking out of your coat pocket and deduces thereby where you came from, how you got here, where you are staying, and when you plan to leave (and when you were born) (and what you had for breakfast) (and whether you like strawberries or not).

Marston is working with a "strong attractive" lady detective in Barcelona by the name of Grace Emanuelle Cruz Silva, and as they are driving away from the police station, his friend Tom tells Silva that Hugo has "a little Sherlock Holmes trick." She's curious, and she and Tom needle the detective to reveal what he notices about her. Hugo says he'd rather not: "Generally people get more upset when I'm right."

No, they insist, he must do it. So with reluctance, he says,

    I'd say that you're a former military medic, you're dealing with PTSD, you recently went on a road trip, and you're a fan of the Beatles.

Silva says, "all correct on all counts." She wants to know how he did it, and, once again, pushed, he says "When you walked into Garcia's office --- Garcia being her boss --- I noticed that you had a slight limp. But you also had a very erect bearing, very military. Together these things mean nothing but bear with me because I noticed the decorations on your shirt."

    I'd say that you were injured in Afghanistan, physically and emotionally. Which puts you close to the front line and, since Spain doesn't have women as front-line troops, most likely as a medic.

He figured out the Beatle angle by her Beatles key ring.

These deductions seem a little off-the-wall to me --- especially that PTSD bit --- as does much of The Reluctant Matador. I figure that a detective novel with a dicey plot (and one filled with a plethora of deus ex machinas) should at least have characters that grab us with their dialogue, interest us with their interactions, bedevil us with their insights. The characters here just leave us in torpor, their personalities muddy, their back and forth witless.

This is Hugo and his drunken friend (from the CIA) Tom discussing their upcoming trip to Spain:

    "I assume you have a plan?" said Tom.

    "We'll go to the address on the business card first thing in the morning."

    "Guns blazing?"

    "Flash grenades first."

    "You're going to be all ingratiating and polite, aren't you?" Tom said.

    "Yep. If that doesn't work, you can chopper onto the roof, slip down the chimney, and shoot everyone."

    "You have never been to Barcelona, have you.?"

    "No," said Hugo. "Why?"

    "They don't have chimneys."

All this left me wondering if author of The Reluctant Matador had ever been to Barcelona. Last time I looked, some of Gaudí's loveliest architecture has to do with chimneys flowing over the roofs of Apartments Güell. Pryor's Spanish ain't so hot, either. He has the Catalan chief of police leaving an anonymous voicemail: "Regréseme la llamada en cuanto podáis, por favor.

I recall that in Spain, the 2nd person plural present indicative was scarce as hen's teeth; and you sure as hell didn't use it with people you've never met before (it's reserved for children and grannies). And if the chief really wanted a response, he would be far better off to leave his message in Catalan. It's a part of Barcelona's regional pride that Francisco Franco and his minions --- despite banning the language for more than thirty-five years --- were never were able to squash it. For Tom and Hugo to blunder around the city and not run into anyone speaking Catalan is highly improbable.

I bailed out of this one on page 150 --- exactly half-way through. One thing that got me out the door was the novel's gore-quotient (GQ). Some of us have a little problem with too much blood on the floor, on the walls, dripping from the ceiling, leaking out from under the door. (I tend to favor the Philip Marlowe GQ --- around ten percent at worst. In Matador, it goes through the roof.)

Bailing out gave me a chance to revisit an earlier detective novel from the same publisher, Blind Moon Alley. It's as funny as it comes, and I don't mean funny ha-ha --- although there is some of that. I've been trying to review it for the last three months but it's so off-the-wall that it defies easy rendering.

It all takes place on the East Coast, in the early days of the depression, during Prohibition. Jersey Leo is a Black albino. He explains, "I'm a genetic milkshake with one too many scoops of vanilla, a piano keyboard with no sharps or flats, a punch line to an inside joke that I've never been in on."

His friends call him "Snowball." And every time he goes out in the real world, we are forced to recall that in those uninhibited days, the word "correct" never came within spitting distance of people of color, especially those with diverse physical maladies.

Leo goes to visit one of his friends in jail. The guard

    ushers me into the gatehouse, where three other guards are sitting on folding chairs and listening to Eddie Cantor on the radio. I turn away from the bright lamps they've got burning, but it's no use, my eyes shimmy. Milmo stares at me with the same confused expression I get from the rumrummers who say that I'm too white to be colored, and too colored to be trusted. I could save him four years of medical school by telling him that albino eyes go haywire every once in a while, but I skip it.

Eyes "shimmying?" Over at our faithful Wikipedia, we find that

    Albinism is associated with a number of vision defects, such as photophobia, nystagmus and amblyopia.

Now what? Author Florio lets us in on the facts later on down the line, when Leo is forced to lie in the sun too long when he's under arrest. His doctor gives him a teabag for his ear. "'Wet them and use them to soak the burn,' he says. 'Every morning.'" Then,

    The doc looks at my eyes. "They're shaking," he says.

    "I'm used to it."

    He nods. "Nystagmus."

    I've heard the word before. It's a fancy term that medical people use for shaking eyes. It might as well mean fucking albino.

Already Florio is teaching us something. And Leo is fascinating us. Shy withdrawn, smart, apparently wanting nothing except to be left alone. And, wanting to find a lady to love. Without begging.

Who, he wonders, is going to love someone so odd as to be known as "Snowball."

Leo's albinism --- also known as achromatosis --- weaves through Blood Moon Alley like another character. It's something you carry with you. It's something that doesn't go away, something that affects every single transaction in life. Sometimes here it leads to high comedy, sometime to low and rude wit --- but there's no getting away from it.

For instance, he's trying to get his old high-school friend Garvey out of the pen, because he was one of the few that would stick up for him when they were ganging up on him in school. So when Leo gets to the prison where they are holding Garvey, he comes up to the gatehouse, and

    I start to tell him why I've come, but before I can get a word out, he sees my face and winces. The rain is still prickling my skin and the blotches on my face are probably the color of candied apple.

    "You're here for what?" His eyes meet mine, and he stares me down. Maybe he doesn't like albinos. He should only know what I think of prison guards.

If Florio was sticking in this twist just to juice up the story, I think we'd be fair to kiss him off, as we've done to Pryor. But this thread is neatly woven into Leo's character. We are offered someone in a stylistic tradition ("the murder mystery") that usually avoids subtlety.

We are presented with someone who can be, all at once, sly, shy, cynical, touchy, tough . . . and well aware of where people are at. The insults, when they come (and they come up from the cellar, down the street, across the room) make us quiver too . . . with what we might think of as authorial nystagmus: Life's a bitch; then they stick it to you.

And when they're done with that, they laugh at you.

When Leo comes into conflict with any of the people he has to deal with, they always pull out that extra shiv with which to stick it to him: like "fucking pasty albino." Or "white-bleached jigaboo freak." Whew.

§   §   §

The story of Blood Moon Alley is all over the court, but the pace is exquisite and, at times, the prose sings as it should when you're mixing murder, crooked cops, casual 1930s law-breaking, prostitution, bathtub gin and naked down-home prejudice. This is Leo going to Chester's Chicken Shack, a taxi-dance hall "where Philadelphia's loneliest misfits pony up ten cents to dance with a fallen angel."

The guy at the door gives him the once-over: "He's obviously confused at what he sees and I don't blame him. Chester's attracts just about every misfit in Philly, but not a lot of sweaty, chapped albinos with faint yellow haloes under the eyes." At the bar, he orders an "Aunt Roberta." The bartender "shrugs his shoulders, pulls the absinthe, brandy, gin, vodka, and blackberry liqueur, and mixes up a beauty."

    Then he slides it to me with an apologetic look on his face. I take a pull and it's exactly what I expected --- slightly nauseating but strong as a steam engine. I swear they could use these things to power street lamps.
--- C. A. Amantea
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