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by Dorien Grey
Zumaya, July 2009
237 pages
ISBN: 1934841404

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In HIS NAME IS JOHN (2008), the first Elliott Smith mystery, the hero, after an accident, comes to in a hospital to discover, to his consternation, that he now channels the spirit the man who died of gunshot wounds beside him in the emergency room. John, however, has no idea who he was or what happened to him, and out of his need to know the truth, he refuses to leave Elliott alone. In desperation, Elliott, without revealing that a ghost is directing his actions, turns to his brother-in-law, a Chicago police detective, for help to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, Elliott finds himself falling in love with Steve Gutierrez, a California artist recently relocated to Chicago.

Independently wealthy, Elliott occupies himself by buying up interesting real estate, renovating the property, and then selling it. In this follow-up to the first novel, in what is obviously developing into a series, Steve finds himself mysteriously pulled toward an old apartment complex as a subject for a painting. Discovering while executing the painting that the complex is for sale, Steve thinks that it might interest Elliott as a new project.

Charmed by Steve's painterly vision, Elliott inspects the property and decides to take it on, only to find that it seems to be haunted. In fact, though Elliott often compares Steve's work to that of Edward Hopper's in its general exclusion of people, the new painting shows a figure mysteriously peeping out of an upstairs window. And John returns to inform Elliott that it is Aaron, a spirit lost in the world of the dead, unable to move on until he finds out why Bill Somers, his lover, disappeared just a few weeks before his own death four years earlier.

From an old tenant Elliott discovers that Bill's body was discovered a month after Aaron's death, an apparent suicide. But under John's prodding, Elliott begins asking around and finds suicide an unlikely explanation. He suspects murder. But how to prove it after all these years? And which of several possible suspects is the most likely villain? Meantime, he discovers that Steve is surprisingly picking up on Aaron's presence. But Elliott remains unwilling to open up fully to Steve about John and his previous experience with the paranormal.

Thus, the mystery becomes an examination of the nature of trust. Bill and Aaron both obviously trusted someone or some people whom they should not have. Though Steve gives every indication that he is open to the truth about Elliott's experiences with the spectral world, Elliott holds back on full disclosure, an omission that does not bode particularly well for a solid relationship to develop. Though Elliott's reluctance to out himself is entirely understandable, it is not difficult to draw parallels between the sexual closets so many continue to live in and the psychic closet in which Elliott insists on remaining.

The novel contains a great deal of information about renovation of old properties. Elliott's interactions with his sister's family also ground the novel in everyday realities, as do such ordinary events as an office party to which Steve takes Elliott, talks with his work crew, concern for an elderly tenant who has lived in her present apartment for twenty-five years, peeps into a gay bar as Elliott tries to find out more about Bill's ex before Aaron, and the like. Normally I do not like supernatural mysteries, but the fact that Elliott behaves more or less as I suspect I would should I suddenly discover a ghostly presence filling my mind makes it easier for me to suspend disbelief.

Grey always plays scrupulously fair with his clues, sometimes to the point that the reader can arrive at the solution faster than the sleuth does. I dozed here and missed the essential clue that leads Elliott to the murderer. Given the way that small publishers lately seem to be overrunning the marketplace with sexually explicit gay mysteries, let me note that, though Elliott and Steve are very much in a sexual relationship, Grey's scenes always end discreetly before they make it to the bedroom. What we have, in fact, is a good, solid, old-fashioned mystery, the only aspect in any way out of the ordinary being that the co-sleuth is only a voice in the main sleuth's head.

Reviewed by Drewey Wayne Gunn, September 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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