Daniel Quinn,
The Holy
(Context, 2002)

Howard Scheim, one of The Holy's main characters, is a detective who admires the works of Rex Stout. Stout's orchid-loving private-eye Nero Wolf wrapped up cases by bringing the main characters together to review the facts and identify the culprit. Scheim honors that tradition, except for the part about identifying the culprit. His case is far too complex for that.

The story begins with a clever and potentially intriguing way to combine fantasy and detective work. Scheim's would-be client, a wealthy retired man, makes a plausible case (for a fantasy novel anyway) that the false gods worshipped by the Israelites after Moses led them out of Egypt must have had some basis in fact. He asks Scheim to find out what happened to Baal, Ashtaroth, Moloch and others once they had been rejected by the Hebrews and Christians. It's only after considerable arm-twisting that Scheim reluctantly agrees to pursue his client's seemingly absurd request. It's entertaining to see him wend his way through a tarot reading, witchcraft rites and a meeting with a clairvoyant as he attempts to make some sense of the question he's trying to answer and begins to realize it may not be as ridiculous as he first believed.

The Holy's success depends on how well Quinn can build eerie suspense, resolve the mystery and keep us interested in his characters. He comes close enough on two out of three -- suspense and mystery resolution. He is less successful with his characters. Scheim is believable and likable, but too soon after he begins investigating, we're switched to another plot line with a different and far less appealing main character, David Kennesey. What at first seems a temporary shift lasts almost half the book. That's long enough to lose track of Scheim, and Kennesey never earns the same level of interest. He certainly meets with more than his share of bizarre characters and events, but it's a relief when the detective returns and the two plot lines merge. Quinn eventually does a neat job of tying up most of the loose ends after Scheim brings key characters together in a Nero Wolf-like climax.

The Holy is an above average fantasy -- well written and worth reading. Quinn has much of Stephen King's knack for inserting weird horror elements into a well-developed, realistic setting. That makes the fantasy more believable and increases its impact. I hope Scheim gets to work another supernatural case. In the meantime I think I'll try some of Quinn's earlier novels, starting with Ishmael, which in 1991 won a $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Award. Sounds like a good place to start.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 15 February 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.