Monday, June 25, 2012, a Blues Mystery, and the Tiger That Whimpered

Eyre Price, Blues Highway Blues sells more media than anyone, and has cornered the e-book market. But apparently that isn’t enough for the Bezos Bunch, who for the last two or three years have tried to make their mark in dead tree publishing, too. Their latest attempt is Thomas & Mercer, an imprint specializing in mysteries and thrillers. I’m sad to say they’re off to an inauspicious start.

Deep in hock to the mob, washed-up music mogul Daniel Erickson raids his safe in his Malibu home. Only, his safe is bare. Instead, he finds a one-track CD warning that, to reclaim his money and his soul, Daniel must begin his search at Robert Johnson’s famous crossroads. With two enforcers on his trail, Daniel begins an odyssey along Highway 61, the road at the nexus of America’s blues heritage.

Perhaps debut novelist Eyre Price feared he might never get to publish another book. That would explain why he overstuffs this volume with material that, separated out and treated with the care each part deserves, could have made three or four very fine novels. As it stands, Price has so many irons in the fire that none achieves maturity. Perhaps if he respected his material more, I might finish reading with something beyond a shrug.

Price starts well, with a darkly comic premise that combines his love of music with a noir thriller. His gallows humor and fine ear for dialogue make for interesting characters in absurd but plausible situations. And early on, when he swings from bleak comedy to shocking scenes of casual cruelty, Price seems almost Shakespearean. Price sets himself a high standard in the early pages.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t maintain that standard. Over a hundred pages in, our protagonist Daniel picks up a mysterious hitchhiker who does a terrible job concealing his secret identity. For a guy who claims to know his blues, Daniel really, really misses the obvious. Moreover, this stranger introduces an element of the supernatural—a quarter of the way through the book—that upsets the balance and changes the tone of the story.

Nor is this the only clue Daniel fails to notice. Daniel isn’t a dummy. More than once, he stops the narrative to lecture other characters, and by implication us, on why Howlin’ Wolf beats Elvis, how Stax Records had more integrity than Sun, and why Mardi Gras ain’t New Orleans’ beating heart. Yet repeatedly, strangers dump clues in his lap, and he sleeps through them. I wanted to grab Daniel’s lapels and shout at him to just pay attention already.

Price keeps introducing subplots, many of which I recognize from elsewhere. When a local homicide detective and an FBI agent clash over jurisdiction, for instance, and begin a dragnet for Daniel, I notice two problems. One, there’s no jurisdictional problem. Since Daniel is wanted for no crimes in the detective’s city, the detective has no claim. Also, the agent sounds just like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

Price also shows no understanding of criminal business: loan sharks seldom kill defaulters. The dead don’t pay interest. No criminal enterprise would pursue a target from Vegas to Malibu to Memphis and beyond; it’s too expensive and risky. Any enforcers that left as many bodies, and thus as many liabilities, as these Moron Twins, would quickly find themselves wearing cement overshoes. Price creates a Mafia seemingly run by posing teenage shoplifters.

These increasingly complicated thriller boilerplates never quite coalesce into a narrative. I don’t see the story so much as the sources Price quarries. Is this a cops-and-robbers chase? A mob comedy? An introspective mystic musical? Yes, all this and more. Like a sleeper couch, these various components combine in absolute discomfort. And Price’s attempts to integrate everything leave visible authorial fingerprints all over the story.

Price simply tries to do too much, and in the process, does little justice to any of his story components. Every time I turn the page, I see the zygote of another good story. Yet none of Price’s many, many ideas comes into its own. I hope he gets the chance to publish another book, because he deserves the opportunity to achieve his potential.

And I hope Amazon, if it wants to play in the big publishers’ sandbox, gets a little more discerning in its selection process. Maxwell Perkins might have midwifed this book into a critical and commercial stunner. With its money and its market might, Amazon could fill that role for new writers. Here’s hoping they start doing so. Soon.

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