Michael Gruber

"Valley of Bones"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple FEB 17, 2005)

"I like crazy people. They do less harm than the sane, and many of them are close to God. One of the hard things about being crazy is that people stop looking at you like you're a soul. And I touch them, and help them to pray, if they're possessed. Sometimes it works."

Deftly juggling four separate plot lines, Michael Gruber's latest challenging mystery focuses on Emmy Lou Dideroff, a woman with a checkered past, who has been a postulant in a religious order which "provides succor to the innocent victims of war and oppression." Now in Miami, where she has been found in the hotel room of a Sudanese oil merchant who has just been pushed out of a tenth floor window, Emily is talking earnestly with St. Catherine of Siena when the police arrive, willing to confess to a murder of which she may be innocent because "it would be an honor to be executed unjustly, like Jesus." When Emily is committed for thirty days' observation, she decides to write her "confession" in a series of notebooks, the entries of which, explaining every detail of her life, are interspersed throughout the novel.

The first officer on the scene of the murder for which Emmy Lou is accused, is Tito Morales, who soon becomes the partner of Iago Xavier (Jimmy) Paz, another Cuban-American police officer and a main character in Gruber's previous novel, Tropic of Night. Their relationship with their boss, Major Oliphant, the FBI, and other federal agencies as the investigation unfolds constitutes another subplot, with Emmy Lou providing little information about the man in whose room she was found. Roadblocks erected by both the Department of Justice and the FBI make the investigation of this murder particularly difficult for the local Miami police.

Lorna Wise, the psychologist in charge of Emmy Lou's competency hearing, becomes her therapist/advocate, and it is to Lorna that Emmy Lou's "confession" is addressed. Though Lorna herself is not religious, she feels an inexplicable connection to Emmy Lou, and the reader soon discovers that Lorna has problems of her own. When Lorna is introduced to Jimmy Paz at a dinner party and becomes attracted to him, these threads connect, and Jimmy's own feeling that both the devil and a godly spirit inhabit Emmy Lou leave both him and Lorna vulnerable to the excesses of Emmy Lou's religious mania.

Throughout the novel, historical information about the Nursing Sisters of The Blood of Christ, the religious order in which Emmu Lou Dideroff was a postulant, and about its founder, Marie-Ange de Berville are interjected. The history of the order, the source of its wealth, and the backgrounds of its sisters provide dramatic contrasts to the action in Miami, with Emmy Lou as the common link between the order and the murder investigation.

As the investigation moves from Miami to the Sudan, where Emmy Lou spent a year helping the starving Christians in the resource-rich south to survive their oppression by the government in the north, some of the interests Gruber has displayed in his previous novel, Tropic of Night, emerge. Detailed information about anthropology--in this case, of the Dinka tribe in Sudan--the ethnographic conflicts which have threatened them with extinction, their powers of magic and sorcery, and the mystical connections they have with their surroundings all play a role in this novel, too, elevating it above the usual murder investigation by calling into play issues far greater than those of the local murder investigation. The fact that Paz's mother is the personification of a Santeria goddess and is active in Santeria ceremonies enables Paz and Lorna to feel connections with the spiritual and to understand of Emmy Lou Dideroff on a more personal level.

With offbeat characters who challenge the stereotypes of most murder mysteries, Gruber keeps the reader interested, not only in the story itself but in the unfolding characterizations as Jimmy Paz and Lorna deal with the complexities of religious mania and/or possession. The author keeps the interest high by withholding key information about the main characters, and the complexities of the plot, with its increasing mayhem, ratchet up the suspense. Not just a shoot-'em-up, this mystery novel raises fascinating questions about psychology, religious mania, and responsibility, and as the threads come together in the conclusion (and somehow they all do), the tight construction and careful plotting pay off with a blockbuster resolution. Fast-paced and fun to read, this challenging mystery manages to juggle several plots and subplots and keep all of them in the air until the final pages.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 42 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Jimmy La Paz Series

Stand-alone novels:

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About the Author:

author photoMichael Gruber has a Ph.D. in marine biology from the University of Miami. He has held many jobs, virtually all of which have involved writing, usually anonymously. In fact, recent rumors say that Gruber was the ghostwriter for the Robert K. Tannebaum's Butch Karp series (up until Hoax), thus making him ineligible for the Edgar Award for First Novel when Tropic of Night was published.

Gruber lives in Seattle, Washington with his wife, an artist.

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