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Tropic of Night, Michael Gruber, Harper Torch, $7.50.

Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber

This is one of the most memorable, most entertaining, as well as one of the most thought provoking mysteries (or just plain books) that I have ever read. Michael Gruber apparently was the "ghost" for a lot of the Robert K. Tannenbaum books - this is his first under his own name - but it's apparent that this is a writer who has been honing his skills over decades. This is not the work of a first time author - it's mature, it's complex, it has psychological depth - and it has a killer plot. The setting is Miami and the book begins as a sort of standard serial killer type thriller, but it very quickly veers from the ordinary. Someone in Miami is cutting up pregnant women and taking their babies out. Catching the case are two very different detectives - an older born again white Christian, and a younger "black" Cuban, Iago "Jimmy" Paz, a complicated, angry, sensitive, commitment phobic cop. The story of the serial killer is paralleled by the story of Jane Doe (her real name) who at the moment is living under an alias with a daughter who doesn't belong to her, wearing the "invisibility" disguise of a plain and frumpy middle aged white woman. The love she feels for her daughter is waking her from a kind of self imposed prison sentence (the reasons behind it don't become clear until the end of the book), but the book jumps back in time to trace Jane's life as a wealthy young woman obtaining an anthropology degree and going out in the field to places where magic and spells are a reality, not an imagined concept. A lot of what the books talks about is too complicated to explain in a short review, but Jane ends up in both Siberia and more notably, Africa, in cultures where she is almost devoured whole by the culture instead of actually studying it. When she goes to Africa, she goes with her chic black poet husband, and what happens to them there shapes what happens in the rest of the book.

Because Jane's story is tied to the story of a frustrated Detective Paz who is trying to find out who is killing pregnant women in Miami, Gruber is able to add lots of suspense and tension to what could have been a discursive look at African culture. The elements of African witchcraft (and in Miami, Santeria) are, however, some of the strongest elements in the book. Not only that, Jane's character is so real that when I finished the book I actually dreamed about her (you'll have to read the book to see how the Africans feel about dreams). This isn't a book easily forgotten. It may even change the way you look at the world, or how you feel about what might be real, and what might be possible. In the truly 60's sense of the word, this is a mind expanding read.

 

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