The Dead Man’s Brother – Roger Zelazny

2 out of 5

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The last chapter of Roger Zelazny’s The Dead Man’s Brother is thrilling – making good on the cover’s depiction of a jungle chase, with a machete-wielding hero pursued by automatic gun toting baddies – and satisfying, stepping through the story’s various mysteries bit by bit to piece things together. The chapters leading up to this point, though, are a mix of runarounds and exposition dumps, coming across as attempts to over-complicate things as a substitute for intrigue, and then jump in and explain why Current Events should be important, when they’re probably not.

Zelazny, a well-established fantasy and sci-fi author, might’ve written Brother in the early 70s, when (I believe) his career in his favored genres was taking off; it was discovered and then published by Hard Case Crime for the first time in the late 00s. It’s a good example of a work being technically very well written – the way Zelazny casually stitches his scenes together, and the intelligent repartee between characters is slick, and impressive – but maybe not well written for its effectiveness as a book. He gives our lead – Ovid Wiley – a great name, and an intriguing background as an art thief gone legit, and inserts a lot of the right moves that definitely work in flashes, with continual double-crosses and a prison escape and a who’s-side-is-she-on femme fatale, but the surrounding narrative never quite settles into a convincing or emotive tone to support those flashes; we lope along without much urgency, pausing for out of place lectures on history or politics that, due to that pacing, serve only to muddle the tone further, instead of adding to the characters or the tale’s immersiveness. The setup is equally promising, as Ovid discovers a dead body on the floor of his gallery one morning – an old accomplice – and then gets rescued from police interrogation by an unnamed government agency, tasked with looking in to funds stolen from the Vatican in “exchange” for this favor, being propped up as “the only man for the job”-type, but as suggested above, these are only the initially steps in what could be said to be the mystery of discovering the what-and-why of that stolen money, except that each step makes it seem like Zelazny is deciding to ignore the step before it. That the conclusion lines things up concisely underlines that there’s a tighter, and more gripping version of the book buried within.

One could speculate that Zelazny’s having left The Dead Man’s Brother unpublished suggests there was another draft forthcoming, and it’s surely also possible that a reader more familiar with the author’s style – I have not read any of his other books – will appreciate the casual, open-ended tone employed here. It certainly percolates into some great moments, but every unbroken chunk of text explaining, at length, some justification that probably wouldn’t have much impact a few pages later, had me tuning out quite frequently.