Anne Frasier, Play Dead (Onyx, 2004)

The south has an air of mystery when thoughts turn to hoodoo, voodoo, root doctors, and zombies. Those of us from the north can only compete with tales of hauntings in centuries-old clapboard houses, or perhaps with an odd recalling of the Salem witch trials -- which really aren't the same thing.

In Play Dead, author Anne Frasier uses hoodoo as a main ingredient in her story-telling formula. Or at least, she pretends to. It seems to be a part of everyone's life, most importantly Elise Sandburg's, the main character, who is the lead detective in several killings in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia. We learn early in the book that Elise has a disturbing family history, and is likely the daughter of a famous conjurer, Jackson Sweet. Despite her usually rational nature, Elise is drawn to this element of her heritage, and vacillates between skepticism and belief. She pairs up with David Gould, former FBI agent banished from his Chicago job due to personal problems, and definitely not one of the faithful. He's got his own disturbing history, though rather than embrace his past the way Elise does hers, he tries as hard as he can to eradicate it from his memory; he's on a path of self-destruction. The two don't get along at first, but their bond grows, and eventually the chemistry between them is obvious and strong and ties the book together better than anything else.

The killings look like zombification. And indeed, Frasier relies heavily on a basic understanding of tetrodotoxin -- or TTX -- a unique poison that is said to cause a state that closely and convincingly mimics death (though ingestion of tetrodotoxin is often fatal). The poison is a well-known risk of eating puffer fish, and has been documented by Wade Davis in his studies of Haitian Vodou as an ingredient in the making of (supposedly) real-life zombies (see Davis' book, The Serpent and the Rainbow). So bodies turn up, are sent to the morgue, and then seemingly walk away, but eventually die. The killer isn't making zombies though; there's another reason the toxin is being used.

The book is filled with characters that are supposed to be eccentric, lending color to the story, but they are often not strongly developed. There's Strata Luna, a voodoo priestess who runs a house of prostitution and who fiercely guards her privacy; however, Frasier doesn't convince us of her personal power. Two irritating detectives -- Mason and Avery -- are dubbed "Starsky and Hutch," but the monikers are given only for thin similarities. There are James LaRue, mad scientist, and Flora Martinez, obsessed hooker. Elise's thirteen-year-old daughter Audrey -- the most ordinary character -- is intended to be a typical teenager, unsure whether to treat her mother with respect or disdain.

Many elements of the book seem merely to be "neat ideas," not streamlined parts of the writing. And that brings me back around to the hoodoo, which is supposed to be key, but really isn't. Mojos are made, wangas given out, goofer dust sprinkled, and curses spoken. It might have been a fun read if some of those conjurations had actually worked, if there had been a bit of mystery. Or, directly acknowledging that they didn't work would have made characters' dialogue more compelling. Elise, despite obvious confirmation that hoodoo is really just mumbo-jumbo, gets swept along in what we can only conclude is silly superstition.

I found the overall superficiality of Play Dead disappointing, as well as the lack of atmosphere, the weak characters, and the sense I had that this was in some way cheating off John Berendt's excellent Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Play Dead doesn't even live up as a simple mystery; the reader is not offered any real clues to whodunnit, so the twist at the end feels isolated from the rest of the story, and is wholly unsatisfying. If this one draws your eye, keep walking.

[Nellie Levine]