This long-lost little gem of a thriller from the great Roger Zelazny starts with a bang. Er, well, with a body on the kitchen floor. With a rather substantial knife sticking out of it. The kitchen floor (and knife) belong to one Ovid Wiley, former art thief turned legitimate art dealer. The corpse belongs to one Carl Bernini, former co-conspirator of Ovid’s. Don’t jump to any conclusions, though. Ovid isn’t the one who turned his ex-partner into an ex-person. In fact, he’s as curious as any reader as to why, after an absence of many years, Bernini has the temerity to turn up, let alone turn up dead in Ovid’s own gallery.
Turns out the U.S. government is interested too. Interested enough to whisk Ovid away to Washington, D.C., where the CIA promises to make this messy situation go completely away if Ovid will do them one small favour: go to Italy and investigate the disappearance of a priest who’s been embezzling from the Vatican. They feel that the skills and contacts Ovid had in his previous “career” make him the perfect agent for the job. Ovid has his doubts, but little choice.
And so Ovid is shuffled off to Italy, where he discovers a common link between the dearly departed Bernini, the missing priest and himself: Maria Borsini, once Carl’s lover, more recently the priest’s. And from there, things accelerate in a tangle of mistaken identities, deception and murder (attempted and otherwise) as Ovid and Maria flee Italy and seek answers with the priest’s brother in Brazil.
Zelazny throws in enough quirky twists and turns to keep the plot rumbling along at a good clip and readers guessing until the very end. The overall tone is light and humorous, save for a few dark scenes. Ovid is an affable protagonist, sometimes as much along for the ride as the readers, other times an instigator himself. The dialogue is sharp and witty, vintage Zelazny (best guess is the book was written around 1971), and so too the prose.
Dead Man’s Brother is a delight to read — Roger Zelazny’s language and characters seem right at home in this genre — and regrettably over all too fast at less than 300 pages. If only more such jewels were left to unearth …
(Hard Case Crime, 2009)