DEATH AND THE LANGUAGE OF HAPPINESS
By John Straley
June, 1998 $5.99 (255pp)
Reviewed by Bill Wemple (7/98)
A dead Mexican mother in a hotel tub and the disjointed ramblings of the 97-year-old murder suspect, William Flynn, open Straley's third Cecil Younger novel. Flynn's defense attorney meets Younger in the local rest home, and together they listen to the old man ruminate about the Wobblies, the murdered woman, and guilt long past. Flynn is lucid on one point. He wants to be buried next to Ole Hansen, and he wants Cecil Younger to find the murdered woman's estranged husband, Simon Delaney. Delaney, the old man insists, is the link to Hansen.
As Cecil admits to himself early in the book, "Becoming a private investigator in a small town in Alaska is not the greatest career move." He needs work. The bank is about to foreclose on his house. Social Services is about to rescind his custody of Todd, the 42-year-old mentally disabled innoncent in his care. He has bills. So Cecil decides to "whip these meager facts into some kind of case" and the reader accepts on faith that Cecil will reconcile Flynn's apparent ramblings. A tightly wrapped mystery begins to evolve from these improbable beginnings.
Cecil is told that Delaney left Sitka for Dutch Harbor, so Cecil flies west to begin the search. In the Aleutian fishing port, he's a step behind the victim's father, who's also looking for Delaney and wants to kill him. Delaney, however, has left Dutch Harbor for Centralia, Washington, the site of the IWW (Wobblies) riot of 1919. But before Cecil also leaves Dutch Harbor, he learns that Ole Hansen was a participant in that "Centralia Massacre." Both Hansen and a man named Davis escaped arrest, disappeared, and have never been found.
Cecil, who must take Xanax to fly, discovers he's out of pills and gets drunk on the return flight to dull his fear. He incenses his partner, Jane-Marie, who temporarily stalks out of his life to manage a research expedition, leaving Cecil the sole caretaker of Todd. Todd, who's never been farther from home than southeastern Alaska, must accompany Cecil to Seattle, the first leg of the trip to Centralia. It's either that or loss of custody. Cecil then loses Todd in the Seattle bus station, and by the time he finds him, they're broke. They must hitchhike to Centralia.
At this point, the plot gets soggy and loses its forward thrust. But that doesn't matter. You've become more interested in Cecil and his personal problems than you are in his search for Simon Delaney. It's his problems that are holding your interest, not the book's riddles. The hitchhiking hiatus is both dangerous and comic as this odd pair, protected only by Todd's naive honesty, travel south to Centralia in a variety of vehicles.
They find Delaney in Centralia, and painfully learn that he does have the connection to Ole Hansen and that William Flynn's ramblings make perfect sense. Straley depends on a medley of dual identities to bring everything together, but the slightly artificial denouement is palatable. In fact, by the end you don't much care about the answers to the mystery, which has just been a vehicle for building this engaging, three dimensional man. Straley's a master of small detail and characterization, despite lines like, "His voice rumbled like the grinding continental plates," and the resulting Cecil Younger seems worth knowing, a prerequisite for any successful novel series. This series should be worth reading.
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