Vespers by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"If thou hast thirst, then let thee come to the Lord Satan. If thou wouldst partake of the water of life, the Infernal Lord doth offer it."
Vespers, the forty-second (!) novel in Ed McBain's (Evan Hunter's) famous 87th Precinct series, was published in 1990 so by virtue of a "round" year number it became a part of my partial "McBain re-read project". And I am happy it did because I rather like this book despite my major disappointments with the series as a whole and some very weak installments that I have reviewed here earlier.
Father Michael, the parish priest, is in some kind of trouble; we don't know what is wrong and the mystery will not be solved until the very end of the novel. He is saying vespers in the church rectory garden but when he is about to finish the prayer someone stabs him to death. Detective Carella catches the case and leads the investigation with Cotton Hawes' help.
Multiple threads contribute to the plot as there are several people and organizations that apparently might have benefited from the priest's death. Obviously the most colorful thread is the one that features Church of the Bornless One, a devil-worship church which indulges in sexual orgies under the guise of "black" masses. The Satan followers' story tends to be hilarious rather than frightening, except for one particular aspect that is probably much more unsettling today than it was 27 years ago. The writing is surprisingly explicit but not in bad taste except for several utterly lame and cringe inducing phrases such as "nascent tumescence," a worthy candidate for The Worst Circumlocution Ever Award. (My entry in the contest, "throbbing turgid protrusion," wouldn't even make the long list.)
Another interesting thread - albeit completely implausible - involves Detective Willis' girlfriend who is pursued for her past misdeeds by professional killers sent from abroad. Unsurprisingly, drug dealing plays a prominent role in the plot but we also have something original - the issue of insufficient tithing by parishioners. What bothers me a little, though, is the author's pretense to depth in his writing. When juxtaposing conflicting versions of truth, Mr. McBain refers to Rashomon. Whoa! One would like to say "Wow, man, that's, like, really deep!"
What I like the most about Vespers is the author's utter cynicism showing in several fragments of the novel and particularly evident in the denouement and in the drug trade thread. Real motives of human behavior are often uglier than the crimes people commit and the clarity of this sordid realization in some way offsets the clichés, the implausibilities, and even the "nascent tumescence." Marginally recommended.
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