John MacLachlan Gray, The Fiend in Human (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003)

Period-piece mysteries work best when they completely immerse the reader. This entails building a highly detailed environment; the reader can't be assumed to have a full knowledge of the era in which the novel is placed. Working at the necessary level of detail creates a dilemma for the author — how much period atmosphere is enough? Each historical mystery must finely balance the needs of the mystery with the needs of historical evocation. Too far in either direction can cripple the novel.

John MacLachlan Gray's The Fiend in Human struggles to stay perched on the edge of this balance. For a murder mystery, it's difficult to catch the book's hook. Unfortunately, the novel too often falls over into a love affair with the era. Gray works hard to create complex dialog worthy of a novel actually written in the 19th century. That's great, except that it drags down the narrative to a glacial pace. Though it does heighten the dramatic intensity of the narrative at key points, the use of formal, Victorian language bedevils the story's flow. On top of this, this style just isn't natural to a 21st century writer. Gray's style of language doesn't quite ring true. It sounds adopted, never quite familiar. Even worse, it drowns much of the action. By page 50, the descriptiveness is exhausting. Just get on with it! It takes about 70 pages for the plot to begin to stir. At the end of the novel the real dramatic tension comes too late, weighted down by prose. The effect is that the characters are moving through Jell-O. Their actions are vigorous but they can't get going quickly or generate a lot of energy.

Time and again, the details threaten to (and often do) drag down the story. This is a shame, because the twists in the plot are excellent and serve to keep the reader guessing until nearly the end. There's just too much text to slog through to get to the good parts. The text, while highly descriptive, is difficult to get into. Sixty to eighty word sentences, consuming entire paragraphs in a blizzard of commas and semicolons, don't make for approachable writing. At times, it was a bigger mystery figuring out how to diagram the sentences than figuring out who the murderer was. Worst of all, Gray unfortunately keeps dropping these bunker-busting sentences once the story is moving rapidly towards its denouement. You're hot on the trail of the killer with Whitty and Owler, then — BAM — your concentration is in ruins as you climb out from under a massive sentence.

Overly convoluted prose is the fatal weakness of The Fiend in Human. It's very hard to get into the story, with extremely long sentences requiring a lot of concentration from the reader. This is too bad, because the plot weaves together multiple storylines in a complex pattern. The final twists, when introduced, are delicious. Gray can write a good murder mystery, but his love for the era has created an evocation of 19th century England that puts too much emphasis on recreating a particular style. More story and less style would make The Fiend in Human a great read.


[Eric Eller]