Clyde Lynwood Sawyer Jr.
& Frances Witlin,
An Uncertain Currency
(Memento Mori Mystery, 1999)

An Uncertain Currency is an odd and fascinating book, combining the life story of a sporadically psychic Italian man with a murder mystery set in a small Southern town filled with secrets. These threads intertwine in unexpected ways, balancing and reinforcing each other. I loved the way the various events depicted seldom caused one another in a direct way, instead acting as catalysts for each other. This both made the stories interesting and unpredictable, and also makes one think about the ways we impact one anothers' lives, frequently without even being aware.

Mario grew up in the Umbrian hills, discovering an early interest in archeology -- which catalyzed his first encounter with his psychic powers, which may or may not be the result of an entity he called "la Lucia" -- and a young and passionate love. These segments, in particular, are written beautifully and evoke the mood and the locale. As he grows older and moves on with his life, he develops an act as a mentalist, using both his actual gifts and the tricks of the trade, and travels to America. He agrees to perform in Floraville, Georgia, whereupon the two main threads of the novel come together. Since this is a mystery, I don't want to give away plot twists; Mario helps in the murder investigation, performs and in other ways interacts with the townspeople. These experiences lead him to make some changes in his life, and the novel ends with him reading a letter from a Floraville correspondent, tying up loose ends in both threads. The sections devoted to Mario's history depict both his joys and disappointments; somewhat more of the latter, but written hopefully and not full of fashionable angst.

The Floraville sections take place in the present (more or less), and from a variety of points of view. This gives us a series of snapshots on life there, as well as advancing the mystery plot. The townspeople grapple in their ways with issues like racism and social snobbery, as well as the complications of friendship, family and romance. In these, as well as in Mario's story, the people and situations are well-rounded and compassionately drawn; even the peripheral characters are usually given some humanizing details that prevent them from being cliches.

Since this is a murder mystery, murders occur and are solved. I think the solution was reasonably fair; after learning the truth I could see that there had been foreshadowing earlier, although I hadn't guessed the solution. To be fair, I wasn't trying hard to second-guess the authors; I was caught up in the atmosphere and prose, and enjoying the journey.

This is a gently optimistic book. Not all problems are solved; no one achieves triumphant or unalloyed happiness; often the desires and needs of individuals and circumstances cause compromises. Still, the people in general end the book in happier places than they'd been in at its beginning, and I liked that a lot -- both the optimism, and its realism. Many personal loose ends were tied up, but not so many that the town or people seemed to end their lives with the book's last page.

I also admired the way the authors tended to avoid direct cause and effect. This is especially unusual in a mystery novel, and added both realism and unexpectedness to the plot. Mario changed Floraville, and Floraville changed Mario, but neither in ways that are expected or obvious. It was impossible to anticipate the way in which an earlier kindness to a cat, for example, lead to the resolution of a plot element; although it appeared as a chain of coincidences, it had to have been very tightly plotted to have seemed so natural although so indirect. And none of this careful plotting showed at all as one read the book; I can see it only in retrospect. Very elegantly done!

The weakest point of the novel, I think, is the way in which Mario ends up going to Floraville. It's not impossible that a second-rate New York City mentalist would accept a gig in Georgia; it did seem improbable to me, both that they'd know to ask, and that he'd agree to go so far away and for little money. This is really the biggest leap of faith the authors require, though, unless one counts that psychic powers can be real, and the rest of the novel is very believable. it would be a shame to miss it because of one bit suspension of disbelief, although I do wish that hadn't been required.

I enjoyed An Uncertain Currency very much indeed, and recommend it as an unusual mix of mainstream and mystery. Fans of classic mysteries may not be patient with its ambling though so many different lives and situations, many of which don't pertain directly to the mystery plot. I think mythic fiction fans will like it; although it doesn't contain the "mythic" elements except for the psychic, the mood and style of writing are very similar to many works of mythic fiction. I recommend it to people who love evocative prose, and who are looking for something different to read; this is both different and delightful.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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