The St. Lucia Island Club, by Brent Monahan
[Note: The uncorrected proof for this book was provided free of charge by Turner Publishing in exchange for an honest review. The final published version of the book may be different from the material reviewed.]
As someone who enjoys reading historical mysteries , this was an easy book to request when I had the chance to read it. This book is extremely smooth in its prose style, the work of someone who over the course of more than dozen novels, including four previous novels in the current John Le Brun series, has clearly established an unmistable authorial voice and a familiarity with his characters and approach to writing. This novel is aimed at a particular sort of reader–if you like historical novels stuffed to the brim with leftist social commentary, this is the sort of mystery novel you would enjoy reading, something so Progressive in mindset, even set in the Progressive era, that it could be endorsed by Howard Zinn and other propagandists of that ilk. If you dislike mystery novels becoming a soapbox for endless and tedious historical revisionism and social commentary, it would be best to steer clear of this book as hardly a page goes by, and certainly never a chapter, without some kind of liberal white guilt being perpetuated on the reader. More than the murders discussed in this novel, or its extremely rushed denouement, that is the real crime of this novel.
The plot of this novel is, for a mystery, a decidedly straightforward one. A clever reader would be able to pick up fairly quickly who the real villain is, and the motive is also established fairly quickly. Even the detective is fairly quick on discovering who murdered, in separate incidents, a planter’s family, the planter himself, and an overly nosy mulatto investigating the murderer’s background. The occasion for the Brunswick and Manhattan based detective being in St. Lucia is that he was lured for a belated honeymoon with his wife to the island after having won a free trip on a thrown chess match in order to be enlisted as a pitchman for promoting the island to wealthy Americans looking for unspoiled natural paradise, which would also spur development of the poor island, as happened later in the 20th century. When the detective, his wife, and another couple arrive in the island, they find natural beauty and treacherous and complicated racial politics, and murder mysteries to solve. Yet the plot as a whole seems merely a pretext for the author to write in a preachy fashion, through various characters (including both the protagonist and the villain), about matters of racism and imperialism and literary criticism. The novel itself takes about 300 pages or so, but without the extraneous political commentary it would be a very trim mystery of at least 50 fewer pages in length, and probably a lot better impression on those readers who do not share the author’s political worldview.
Aside from the fact that the author appears to desire to appeal to all sides of a dispute to achieve the most sanctimonious position possible–his hero was a Southern soldier who sought against “Northern aggression” but he is a self-professed racial and gender egalitarian who retired as a sheriff, using his detective skills in order to defend an elite he subjects to merciless lecturing and hectoring about their reactionary and conservative political positions. By the end of the novel, one is almost rooting for the villain, himself a mixed race professional of intense anger towards racial prejudice suffered in his own personal background, to kill the detective to make the political commentary stop once and for all, but alas, this does not happen. The novel makes strong use of a diary format and is well-plotted, and satisfying in terms of the hero’s ability to make use of a position as an outsider as well as a willingness to deal with primitive conditions in solving crimes, and these are points in the novel’s favor, but the politics of the author are so omnipresent and so strident that the book is simply impossible to enjoy, and that is an unforgivable crime for a mystery novel.
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