David Hunt, The Magician's Tale (Putnam, 1997)

As a writer, an artist and a film buff, it is rare to for me to find a novel that so well shifts between all three mediums in the reader's imagination, causing film noir images to rise up on one page and creating a hypnotic rhythm of syllables on the next. David Hunt's The Magician's Tale manages to pluck the key elements from all of these kinds of creation and combine them into one satisfying thriller.

Kay Farrow is perhaps one of the more intriguing heroines to arise in mystery fiction lately. An achromat, or someone who is completely color blind rather than the much more usual red-green variety, Kay has embraced her altered sense to become a keen and successful black and white photographer. Kept from the blinding daylight by her condition, Kay is most comfortable at night, and is at present working on a project of portraits of the more dangerous sides of San Francisco night life.

When a favorite model, Tim Lovsey -- perhaps the closest Kay has to a friend and possible lover -- is murdered and dismembered, and the police shuffle around ineffectively, Kay focuses her anger and rage by searching for Tim's killer herself. Almost from the moment she begins investigating Tim's life, and therefore what may have caused his death, she runs across unexpected informants and threatening opposition. While uncovering Tim's past, she also manages to unearth what seems to be keeping the police especially quiet and unhelpful -- the similarity of Tim's murder to a string of unsolved serial murders from fifteen years before.

And this is just the start of the plot. Oddly enough, and in a manner which some may consider a flaw and others an interesting style, the plot is not so terribly important in The Magician's Tale. I was never for one instant bored during the reading of the book, though I did often feel the search to find the killer slip to the back of my mind. I was much more intrigued by the array of characters with which Hunt has peopled his book, from Kay's retired cop father who's found peace running a bakery, to the magician of the title who tells an enchanting story containing more questions than answers. San Francisco itself also becomes a kind of character, described as only a native can his home city. David Hunt, a pen name for William Bayer, is a filmmaker and photographer as well as a writer, and his ability to recreate a scene for the reader is perfect.

Kay herself, with her no-nonsense voice undermined by flashes of painful memories, uncertainty in her search and fear of those apparently against her, is a wonderfully strong narrator. Her voice, emotions and vision, described by Hunt's clean and precise prose, became the draw through the story. I did have some complaints, however -- by the time I did finish the story and find the answer to the mystery, I didn't particularly care. In terms of a strict mystery plot, the explanations of clues, especially those gleaned through Kay's father's connections, seemed a little too easy. There were also interesting characters which were inexplicably left by the wayside without any explanation for why they had entered into the plot other than to provide confusion or color.

All in all, however, The Magician's Tale is a book of atmosphere -- the atmosphere of the city, the hustling district, and the feel of a unique woman's mind and soul. On these levels, the book succeeds in forcing you into another kind of vision for a while, of making you aware of the world in a new light. That's all I ever really ask of a book.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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