Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Title: The Diviners
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Little, Brown
Rating: worthy

This starts out in the second-half of 1926 (at least I assume that's when it starts because Libba Bray mentions the death of Rudolph Valentino, who died in late August that year from complications following surgery for appendicitis and gastric ulcers. The first chapter/prologue is depicted as late summer which supports that view. But the 1926 year is betrayed by Bray later in the story when she shows off with her research and includes - as though it's fresh news - an item which took place a year earlier and would have been well out of the headlines by 1926.

Desperate to keep the attention of her guests, a coming-of-age hostess of a party pulls out a Ouija board. I'm a fan of Libba Bray, but this is such an old saw! It would hardly likely to be of great interest to young party-goers in the 1920s who were already bored. They'd hardly be likely to forgo moving on to a better venue in favor of dicking around with a child's toy. I think Bray could have done far better than this, and I have to say it's one of very many really good reasons not to read prologues! So, inevitably, the use of the Ouija board unleashes an evil spirit called Naughty John. Seriously? That sounds like a venue for "cottaging'! And like the almighty Satan himself needs to be granted permission by a pathetic piece of wood before he can carry out his evil?

I have to admire Bray's deception in not numbering the chapters; I read that prologue without being able to distinguish it from the main body of the novel. Very sneaky! You know that authors the world over are actively working on devious tricks to get me to read their sad prologues, don't you? Rest assured that I shall resist as much as is humanly possible, but even with my superhuman powers, I have to confess that I can - occasionally - be misled by those more devious than my pure heart can expose.

On a point of order: Bray seems intent upon squeezing famous names of the era into her story that sometimes it makes more nonsense than sense. She tries to include the Scopes trial, Dutch Schultz, and Sacco and Vanzetti all together, but it seems to me that it's not very likely that newspaper vendors would be screaming about any two of these at the same time, as though they're all fresh news! And she really hits a clunkier when she describes Babe Ruth as the Sultan of Swing! I didn't know he was in a band LOL!

This is a mistake new authors seem to make: give their story "too much" authenticity - but Bray isn't new at all, so I don't know what she thinks she's up to here. She does throw in an occasional hackneyed phrase like "...large, blinking blue orbs that made Evie think of an owl", but in general she writes well. For me personally, I don't care what the newspaper headlines are unless they're honestly relevant to the story in some way. It sure doesn't inform, much less impress me, nor does it move along the story, to throw all this stuff in just to show that you did some research. It's fiction, for goodness sakes! Move the story! That's all you need to do, move it along, make it interesting, and I'll be impressed even if you've done absolutely no research! I honestly don't care about how much research you did unless the story is so boring or bad that I find myself wanting to pick the threads loose just for the sake of it.

Anyway, right after this we meet Evangeline Mary O'Neill, who is the main female protagonist. Seventeen-year-old Evie is a bit too much of a rebel, frankly, and Libba Bray does seem obsessed with seventeen-year-old Irish girls, doesn't she?! Anyway, Evie can divine things about a person by holding something of theirs. This fiction actually has a name, believe it or not: Psychometry. This, along with all other paranormal claims is complete and utter bullshit, but this is fiction, so I don't care if it appears in this story as long as the story framework can reasonably bear it! At a party, she declares that the guy (whose ring she is holding) has made a maid pregnant and from this erupts a scandal from which Evie is sent packing by her parents. They send her to New York City, and which they think is a punishment but which, to Evie, is heaven.

I actually rather liked Evie at that point. The first thing she encounters in NYC is a pick-pocket by the name of Sam Lloyd (at least he claimed that was his name) who lifts twenty dollars from her pocket. I assumed that this gentleman is the first of a love-triangle which Bray was brewing. Evie arrives at her uncle Will's occult museum, and meets the staid assistant by the absurd name of Jericho Jones. He's the object of Evie's NYC friend Mabel's affection. For some utterly unexplained reason, he knows Evie without any introduction and Evie doesn't find this remotely strange.

The third leg of the love triangle (I'm assuming, at this point, but as usual I'm probably wrong - note, I was!) is Memphis Campbell, a guy living in Harlem and running numbers for the Harlem crime lord Papa Charles. Memphis wants to get out of the crime world and write poetry for the rest of his life. He also has the power to heal by the laying on of hands. One night, walking home by a round-about route, he passes a dark, shambles of a house on a hill and gets a creepy feeling from it. That's no doubt because Naughty John Hobbes (seriously - we can't find a more subtle pseudonym than John Hobbes?) is at that moment murdering a woman right there in the house, to evidently unleash the Four Horsemen - and I'm not talking about Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, and the much lamented Christopher Hitchens!.

Evie decides that her uncle's museum, which is in severe financial difficulties, needs a boost. She also plans on painting the town red, but where she hopes to get the money to do this is a mystery. She only has about eight dollars to her name. She is staying in the Bennington Hotel, a once fine place which has lost a lot of its sheen. She hangs with Mabel and meets a Ziegfeld Follies girl by the unlikely name of Theta Knight, Theta, of course, having a value of nine, and its symbol - an X or a cross withing a circle being the ancient Egyptian symbol for the soul, is loaded with meaning. In the cabala, for example, the number 9 is associated with the Hebrew word for truth: emet. Theta takes a shine to Evie and renames her 'Evil'. She also meets two old sisters by the names of Adelaide and Lillian, who are also evidently psychic.

Evie's adventures continue as she continues herself to be irresponsible, out only for a good time, thinking of no-one but herself. She comes to an arrangement with a newspaper man who will give her uncle's museum a sly boost in return for her feeding him snippets about the investigation. Memphis, meanwhile, has been undergoing some revelations of his own. His fascination with the old house on the hill continues, and his younger brother Isaiah is spouting dire warnings in his sleep, which Memphis doesn’t understand.

Evie, Jericho, and Sam cook up (Sam Cook! Lol!) a scheme to visit a religious community which, along with its burned-up forebear of half a century ago, is based shamelessly on the now defunct Branch Davidian community in Waco, Texas. It's said that there were no survivors of that older community, but I'm wondering if Memphis's blind guitar-playing friend Bill is actually a survivor - and that's how he became blind? I'm probably wrong on that, but we'll see!

They learn enough there to throw suspicion on that community as having some kind of ties to the string of murders. Visiting an old professor of her uncle's, Evie and Will find a book which details the eleven steps to letting loose the anti-Christ, but they can't figure out why the killer seems to have started on step five. I'm wondering if they dug a little deeper, they'd discover that steps one through four were completed fifty years before, when the portentous comet in the sky last visited, and the older religious cult was still in business. They note that one of the most interesting things about this book is that the last two pages - sporting instructions on how to defeat the anti-Christ, have been torn from the book.

One night, Evie goes out with Mabel, Theta, and Henry, who is Theta's piano-playing gay friend, to visit the 'Hotsy-Tosy' club (yes, they really did have that kind of ridiculous name back then). This club is supposedly under the protection of Memphis's employer, but it's unaccountably raided by police. Mabel and Evie are arrested, and Mabel gives Evie such a what-for that even she is given pause for thought. Theta escapes with Memphis and so it looks, after all, like those two are going to get together, especially since both of them have been having exactly the same dream for the last six months.

Uncle Will is furious with Evie. He had forbidden her from going out in the first place because of the murders, yet she went out anyway and then she got herself arrested! He is in process of arranging for her to return to Ohio, and she is so desperate that she reveals to him her ability to read objects. He's impressed enough that he relents and allows her to remain with him as long as she doesn't disobey him again, and as long as she starts to pull her weight around the museum.

That's when they learn of another death - this time of a man at the Masonic lodge, who is burned to death on the altar, and who is missing his feet. Clearly someone is gathering body parts, perhaps intent upon animating those parts, which will then become the anti-Christ. Evie decides this has gone far enough; she needs to do something about this, and she surreptitiously wanders by the body while the men are all distracted in discussion. She steels her stomach and her nerves, and she firmly grasps the Masonic ring which the victim is wearing in the hope that she will read sufficient clues from it to stop this horror. She gets a whistled song, and the door is about to open so she can see who it is who is whistling, but one of the cops pulls her away from the body, breaking her contact.

You know one problem with reading a book that I'm really enjoying is that lunchtime at work seems depressively short! Anyway, Evie discovers by accident what the whistled song is, and this leads her to go to the library to research John Hobbes - a convicted and hanged killer from half a century before who was discovered with ten dead bodies in the house. This was curiously the very time when the comet last appeared, and she discovers that there was, at that time, at least one killing where symbols were found on the victim, but her idiot uncle Will dismisses this as Mere conjecture. He can see no real connection between what happened half a century ago and what is happening now, but it looks like I was right (for once!) in theorizing that Hobbes is back to complete what he had only begun half a century in the past.

Another clue arrives when Memphis himself shows up at the museum to solve a mystery of his own. He meets Evie and mentions a couple of things which really pique her interest, but then he runs away as soon as her back is turned! I have no idea what Bray thinks she's up top here. It's out of character for Memphis and offers only artifice, not mystery, but it does provide a way, klutzy as it is, to have Memphis encounter Theta again by 'accident'!

Bray sometimes doesn’t always seem to get the difference between having a character say something in 20's lingo (which doesn’t work for me: too much of that keeps reminding me that I'm reading a story, not lost in the wonders of a new world) and narrating the story in such lingo. In addition to this, I'm also a bit concerned that Evie, the supposedly plucky feminine hero of the story, is such a slave to fashion to the point where she's talking Mabel into changing her own personal style to match the fad of the moment! However, in Bray's favor, I have to say that she doesn't shy away from tough, the mean, and the hard to read. Theta's story, in particular, is sobering to say the least.

There's a chapter called 'Prelude'! Evie, Will & co are stupid not to tell Detective Malloy what they know about the Knowles house, especially after Evie stupidly went there with Mabel. Evie's coat got snagged on something and she left a fragment of it there. Now Naughty John (like saucy Jack) has her scent. He sneaks into the museum one night and both leaves something and takes something. Evie and Will visit John Hobbes's girlfriend from fifty years before. She's now old, of course, and sick, but she's in love with Hobbes. Evie pockets a ring of Hobbes's and plans to use it to track him down. They discover that he was buried with his pendant after the hanging, and on the grounds of the religious cult. They head up there to dig up his grave and recover the pendant, believing that if they can destroy it, they can stop all this. Why they don't simply go burn down the Knowles house is an unanswered question.

At the fair which they visit as a cover for their real plans for recovering the pendant, Evie runs into some cult members who throw mud at her and call her a harlot. It's been pretty obvious for some time that Evie will be the subject of the final tableau, but if there had been any doubt, this event clears all that away! The tableaux are really a straight rip-off of Dexter season six which starts quite literally with Those Kinds of Things.

The Diviners really deteriorates at the end. It’s obvious that Bray intends to parlay this into a series of some sort, which begs the question as to why this first volume is so massive, and answers the question of why so many characters are introduced and then have very little to say for themselves. The murder is solved, of course, and 'Naughty John' (a name which frankly sucks IMO) is brought to book entirely through the efforts of Evie. There's no spoiler in giving that away. But it doesn’t end there.

It dissolves into a few short chapters of oddball unconnected stuff going on which offers no closure and basically is nothing more than an extended introduction to volume two. There is no "team" brought together, and there's no real offered as to what value a volume two might have - other than further cogitation on the pseudo-mysteries opened up on this volume. But those mysteries offer no attraction to me. I don’t really care what they are, or what becomes of these characters, so volume two is a book I am not planning on reading. This novel was a moderate worthy, but it's nowhere near powerful enough to make me want to pursue these people or their mysteries. Perhaps you will.

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