Deborah Grabien is a writer with a style that is easy and pleasant to read; in short, she is a talented storyteller. Still Life with Devils is a potentially interesting genre mash-up, mystery meets supernatural. I suspect hardcore mystery fans will be less pleased and interested by the results than SFF fans, although that is difficult to predict with any certainty. As I read Still Life with Devils I found myself engaged by Grabien’s comfortable and natural prose style yet simultaneously distracted by the convoluted leaps she made to combine the two genres and the overall level of suspension of disbelief required. All in all, while a decent read, Still Life with Devils left me unsatisfied.
The story revolves around Cassius Chant, an African American San Francisco police detective, and his efforts to find and stop an elusive serial killer who has been murdering pregnant women. Chant’s sister Leontyne, known as Leo, is an artist with the unusual ability to literally enter into her paintings via a form of what used to be called astral projection. Chant is also the single parent to a precocious teenage daughter whose Chinese mother abandoned the family immediately following her birth.
Already I think you can see why Still Life with Devils is problematic. A serial killer specializing in pregnant women, an African American single father detective, an astral projecting artist . . . any one of these elements alone might have been enough to provide a satisfying twist around which to construct an interesting take on one or the other (or even both) genres. Taken all together, they at times overwhelm the reader. And yet, as the book clocks in at barely over 200 pages, none of these ideas are as fully explored as one might wish.
As someone with a long connection to the world of art and artists, I found the notion of a painter whose connection with her art was so strong as to allow her to actually enter and wander about inside certain paintings to be very intriguing. One could imagine an author building a very compelling story around this conceit. The artist might get lost or trapped inside a painting or find herself unable to fully function in the mundane world or dedicate herself to painting a Utopia or . .. well I leave it to you to continue this exercise. And yet, in Still Life with Devils the bones of this idea are given very little muscle and flesh, although its implications are perhaps the closest the novel comes to having a central theme.
The effort required by a dedicated single father to succeed professionally while navigating the waters of parenting an adolescent daughter are more than sufficient for providing story material, let alone an African American police detective with a mixed race daughter. Again, there is heart here and the relationship between Cass Chant and his daughter seems believable as far as it goes, but it barely scratches the surface of what might be a compelling theme for an author to explore.
I will not reveal any more about the story in deference to those who might wish to read Still Life with Devils. It could be an entertaining way to spend that next business flight or train ride; it could provide escape on a dreary Sunday when the weather has caused other plans to fall through; it is unlikely, however, to become one of those books that you eagerly pass along or rave about to family and friends.
(Drollerie Press, 2007)