Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse

Keith Hartman
Completed 2/15/2019, Reviewed 2/16/2019
4 stars

I had a lot of fun with this book.  It’s not perfect.  In fact, it has numerous errors that an editor should have caught.  The end leaves a lot of loose ends in the narratives.  There are way too many narrative POVs.  But I really enjoyed it.  It takes place in a near future where the US is so polarized by religion that it seems like civil war is about to break out.  The majority of schools are Baptist or Wiccan, and Wicca has grown to be almost as huge as Christianity.  The Christian right, specifically, the Baptists, have gained much political, military, and social power.  So when a series of grizzly ritualistic murders occur, the Baptists wave their flags and get on their high horses that Satan is gaining power and must be defeated.  The book won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award in 2000.

The plot is very convoluted.  You get the sense that the author hadn’t made up his mind as to what genre exactly he wanted the book to be:  a police procedural, a noir PI thriller, a Wiccan fantasy, a gay comedy.  It’s basically all the above and more.  The basic story line is that there are a series of murders which the police begin to investigate.  The circumstances indicate that black magic is the culprit.  The Reverend Senator Stonewall uses these murders on his immensely popular news network to cultivate fear in the American population and hate towards the Wiccan community, inciting violence between the communities.  A gay private investigator is searching for his missing business partner, who he discovers was investigating Stonewall for a popular Christian singer who believes the Christian right has the message of the Gospel all wrong.  There’s a fourteen-year-old boy who is being chased by what seems to be government agents.  He’s a Baptist, but his girlfriend is Wiccan.  There is also an old transgender Native American shaman who is involved with a movement to reclaim Georgia territory based on a 19th century treaty.  All these plotlines come together for a pretty exciting climax. 

The biggest problem with the book is that there are a lot of characters.  Hartman tells the stories of these characters with first person voiced chapters.  The first quarter or so of the book introduces all these characters.  My first thought while beginning the book was who is the main character.  It turns out that there are a couple of main characters, but the African-American police woman investigating the murders and the fourteen-year-old boy get the most print time.  This seemed rather odd because the gumshoe and witch of the title don’t get nearly as much coverage as the title might suggest.  Interestingly enough, the characters are all colorful enough that it’s not that difficult remembering who is who and what their background is.  Unfortunately, even though they are told in first person, there’s not much differentiation in the style.

The near future Hartman creates is an interesting place.  The gay gene has been found.  Even though abortion is considered wrong by the right-wing Christians, they all get abortions when they find that their baby is going to be gay.  Only the Catholics are still against abortions, so almost all the gay people in this world are Catholic.  The right-wing Christians build up militias, taking over some of the roles of police and military, when it is in their interest to do so.  Needless to say, this enhances the fear-mongering that the Baptists and the Reverend Senator Stonewall perpetuates.  On the other hand, the Wiccans just want peace.  They use their magic, which is real in this universe, promoting harmony and creating protection against the Baptist power mongers. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It has its problems, but it was a really fun read, overshadowing the negatives.  I don’t read much mystery, so I don’t know how it plays out compared to other books in that genre.  But I was impressed that I followed the details and logic of the detective and the PI, something I sometimes struggle with in the mystery genre.  The book tells you who the murderer is about three-quarters of the way through, but the fun in the ending is how everyone and everything comes together. 

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