Mystery, by Matthew Paris
February, 1973 Avon Books
If you’ve ever wondered what it would’ve been like if Philip K. Dick had written a crime novel, wonder no longer; this obscure paperback original gives a good indication of the book that might have ensued. What’s funny is the back cover of Mystery proclaims “An ordinary cop on an extraordinary mission!”, which makes me think the copyist either A.) Never read the book; B.) Read the book and couldn’t figure out how to synopsize it; or C.) Figured the hell with it.
There is in fact nothing ordinary about Mystery. It’s one screwed-up, surreal novel, ostensibly a murder investigation set in New York City, but a New York that seems to be out of some psychedelic sci-fi nightmare. Our narrator is Lt. Salvador, a top New York cop who when we meet him is investigating a murder. Salvador’s white whale is the mysterious Farmer, owner of the infamous Rabbit Club, a shadowy underworld of pleasure palaces. Salvador’s major goal throughout the novel is bringing down Farmer – though first he has to find him, or for that matter discover if he even exists.
Mystery starts off as a typical crime novel, albeit one with a definite literary bent, as Salvador drives around New York City following up clues on a murdered money-runner before he’s tasked by the DA to look into the murder of a call girl who worked at one of the Rabbit Club’s bars. But then Salvador stops off at a suspect’s apartment, a gorgeous woman who throws herself at him, and before they make it the woman tells Salvador to take a look inside her bathroom – and here Matthew Paris lets you know what kind of novel you’re actually in for:
The bathroom door was open. A large cow was sprawled over the edge of the bathtub on its spine. Its black eyes stared at me, probably with more feeling than when they had been alive. Its gigantic head hung limply under the running water falling from the shower. Fluorescent lights streaming from above the mirror illuminated the blood that was running through the hot water onto the colored tile. The cow’s throat was slashed across the jugular vein. I shivered with terror.
Believe it or not, Mystery only proceeds to get stranger. (And this dead cow in the bathtub is never even explained!) In the twisted course of this twisted novel we have conundrum upon conundrum as our narrator encounters a host of bizarre characters, from a general who keeps a harem of young boys to a priest of filth who lives in a church filled with statues made of excrement. There are also “doubles” of virtually every character, including Salvador – who, by the way, isn’t an “ordinary” cop at all; throughout the novel he just blows people away for absolutely no reason, and commits a variety of criminal and murderous acts without any reprimand. I mean, I thought the guy was with the NYPD, not the LAPD!! (Okay, just kidding…)
The name of the murdered Rabbit Club hooker is Velma Roach, and her corpse lies in the Club’s plush Manhattan location. Even the poor murdered girl is strange, as Salvador notes that the corpse is bald; we’re informed this is so because the Rabbit Club girls must be able to change their looks to suit the whims of their current client. Calimyne, one of Farmer’s cronies and the runner of this particular Club location, trades cryptic banter with Salvador in what is a forshadowing of the rest of the novel – for the most part Mystery is comprised of Salvador going from one location to another and trading bizarre, cryptic dialog with bizarre and cryptic characters. While interesting at first it does get old.
You see, the problem with Mystery is the same problem that plagues any overly-literary tome that attempts to be surreal: eventually the reader realizes that there will be no resolution to anything, and what with all of the “weird” stuff the book soon lacks any emotional content. I don’t mean “emotional content” in today’s meaning of the phrase, ie the way everything from movies to commercials will try to milk emotions, pandering to the lowest common denominator – rather I mean you don’t care for anyone in this novel, because each of them is devoid of any human spark.
So then we read with more of an intellectual pleasure as Salvador tracks clues and, uh, randomly murders various people. Seriously, there will be parts where he’s talking to a suspect, and as the suspect walks off Salvador will whip out his gun and blow the person away. Paris works up a subtle subplot that Salvador might be on some psychedelic drug; there is often mention of a mysterious powder various Rabbit Club reps are snorting, and at one point a doctor briefly examines Salvador and asks him, “Are you taking any drugs?” (Salvador’s response is classic: “Should I be?”)
Eventually Salvador hooks up with Kelly Starr, gorgeous Rabbit Club VIP who is an intimate of Farmer but who wants to help Salvador find him…or at least, I think that’s how it goes. The book is very obscure at times. Paris even proves himself unconcerned with doling out regular novel stuff; for example in one scene Salvador heads into a bar to talk to a contact while Kelly waits for him in his car, and when Salvador comes out Kelly informs him that she just received a call from the DA, who asked her to inform Salvador that a host of minor characters were all just knocked off! It’s pretty ridiculous, but just another indication of the surreal world in which this occurs.
It also gradually becomes apparent that Paris is more concerned with word-painting than he is with telling a story with a plot. The murder investigation loses focus as the author spends more time serving up descriptions of his hellishly weird New York. Again, while the writing is good, plot development and any sort of meaning is lost. As mentioned, major events happen “off camera” and the cryptic dialog makes the reader feel as if he’s only getting half the story. Nothing is explained, not even the doubles. For example when Salvador first meets a double, it’s during an apocalyptic firefight, and rather than question the guy Salvador instead tries to kill him. Even when the two meet again in the finale Salvador never once asks who the double is, or even what he is.
Speaking of the finale, there isn’t much of one, but then this is expected given the increasingly surreal nature of the writing. Once again Paris is more content to word-paint rather than deliver a suspenseful climax, thrusting Salvador into a variety of arbitrary locations in which bizarre shit goes down, none of it explained. As for the book’s sleaze quotient, there isn’t much of one; the gunfights are minimally described, and the few sex scenes immediately fade to black. Overall the book has more in common with the self-indulgent hippie lit of the era; funny that it was packaged as a genre novel, complete with a lurid cover painting.
I can’t say I recommend Mystery, but it’s definitely an interesting read. Perhaps this is one of those novels that improves with a second reading, but the constant obsfucation and casual disregard for plot development, characterization, and reality served to turn me off in the long run.