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One frustrating aspect of reviewing murder mysteries is that one can so seldom talk about the novel as a whole without running the risk of spoiling the reader's fun. The present novel is a good example of a mystery that simply cries out to be analyzed as a complex work of art, but there is no way I can talk about how everything comes together in a most satisfying way at the end without giving away who the perpetrator is. I can't even discuss the title since its full significance does not become clear till all is revealed.
Writer Adrien English has just sold the movie rights to the first novel in his own mystery series to a Hollywood production company. The film's potential star, Paul Kane, throws a dinner party to which Adrien, various backers, the presumed scriptwriter, and the director are invited. The guests are still on the opening course when the backer seated beside Adrien keels over and dies in his soup bowl. A surly LAPD detective begins his investigation, visibly chafing under the unwarranted intrusion of his superior, Lt. Jake Riordan, into the case.
Jake's presence leaves Adrien with mixed emotions. Two years ago the two broke up when Jake decided to marry a fellow cop who was carrying his child. But since Adrien himself is a prime suspect, having handed the dead man the poisoned drink that dispatched him, Jake's protection is not undesirable. Then it turns out that Jake seems to know the host quite well, apparently having engaged with him in S/M games even after his marriage.
To further complicate the situation, Jake drops enough comments about Adrien's own skills at sleuthing that Paul offers to pay Adrien to undertake a parallel investigation into the murder on his own. When Adrien balks, Paul in essence blackmails him by making it clear that the future of the movie depends upon Adrien's accepting the job. And so begins the fourth novel in the Adrien English mystery series.
The investigation takes Adrien around a number of sharp turns. Was the murdered man even the intended victim? Or was Paul himself perhaps the one the murderer had targeted? Plausible motives for killing either man must be examined in the hunt for the perpetrator. The deeper Adrien probes, the more he suspects that something that happened in the past identifies who the intended victim was and the reason he was marked for murder. Whoever was intended, the killer is beyond doubt someone in this tight-knit group of colleagues who have worked together for over a decade in the film world.
Meanwhile, what is Adrien to make of the fact that Jake shows every sign of regretting their breakup and seems to want to resume their relationship? And what effect will his return have on the relationship between Adrien and UCLA popular culture professor Guy Snowden? The author's handling of the conflicts of the heart is every bit as masterful as his plotting of the mystery. DEATH OF A PIRATE KING can be read with a great deal of pleasure entirely on its own. But to fully appreciate the tensions running between Adrien and Jake, the reader would be advised to read the three previous novels in order.
Adrien also owns a mystery bookshop in Los Angeles. He first encountered Jake as a result of his employee and best friend being murdered in the first novel in the series, FATAL SHADOWS (2000; reviewed by RTE in 2003). The two men were then attracted to each other, but while Adrien from the beginning was out to everyone, Jake remained firmly in the closet, even to himself. For him even to admit in A DANGEROUS THING (2002) that he might feel something for Adrien was a major breakthrough.
Then in the novel immediately preceding PIRATE KING , THE HELL YOU SAY (2006), for complicated reasons Jake broke off the relationship, and Guy got Adrien more or less on the rebound. At the least, a new reader would be advised to turn first to this one novel, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, in order to get all the nuances in PIRATE KING. The two novels are quite different in style and plot, but together they make for a most satisfactory read. (A quotation from my RTE review appears as a blurb on the back cover of the present novel.)
PIRATE KING is also populated with other old friends from earlier in the series, in particular Adrien's newly acquired step-family. Plus, much more is going on with the plot. The book's cover vaguely resembles an old Errol Flynn poster. An equally accurate cover could have portrayed a puppet-master.
Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, October 2008
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