If Roger Zelazny’s best science fiction and fantasy novels are strikingly Chandlerian, was there ever a Zelaznyesque crime novel? Not until the surfacing of The Dead Man’s Brother, a “lost” manuscript probably written in 1970 or 1971.
That’s when Zelazny was at the height of his powers, the same general era that bore a long string of excellent science fiction novels and some stunningly innovative fantasies like Jack of Shadows, probably my very favorite Zelazny book.
The Dead Man’s Brother was discovered by Zelazny’s agent Kirby McCauley, and somehow ended up with Hard Case Crime — the perfect home for it. I’m going to guess it ended up with HCC both because the publishing world outside the science fiction community never seemed to quite “get” Zelazny, and because Trent Zelazny, the elder Zelazny’s son, is a huge fan of noir fiction. (He’s also quite an author in his own right.)
Whatever the provenance of Brother‘s happy home, it couldn’t fit anywhere better than right where it is. The Dead Man’s Brother is about an art-thief-turned-art-dealer who gets mixed up in a plot involving the CIA, the Vatican, and a rebel movement in the jungles of Brazil. Do you need to know anything more? Nope, because the second you pick it up you’ll blink, look around, and wonder how two or three hours have passed. You will have slurped the damn thing down and I only hope, for your sake, you haven’t been reading on public transportation. If you have, you might want to check if you might have gotten rolled, and also investigate which city and/or state you’ve ended up in. It’s that good, that hard, that fast, that impossible to put down.
Does it work? Hell’s bells, does it work! The Dead Man’s Brother is a fast-paced, gorgeous piece of crime fiction that would have fit as easily beneath the pulp cover Hard Case put on it or the weird photo-covers they put on mainstream international thrillers in those days. And wherever it had gone, it would have been rhapsodic poetry, cover to cover, and that’s what it is today. If crime is your poison, this is one of the best. It’s quick, hard, brutal, and uncompromising. But there are other authors who can do that…some as well, or almost as well, as Zelazny. What The Dead Man’s Brother brings to the table that is absolutely unique is the Zelazny feel…dour, world-weary, erudite, clever, unimpressed by human foibles but in love with the arts and the good life and the wicked twist of a phrase or a sentence that nobody seems to be expecting.
Speaking of weird ’70s thriller photo-covers, I remember shelf after shelf in my grandparents’ house, packed with the half-trashy, half-snooty paperbacks that Zelazny was probably imitating. If it was published in the seventies and it had a cover with a .25 Beretta, a Gold Krugerrand and a tube of lipstick on the cover, that’s the genre Zelazny was aping here. He blew them all out of the water in a book he never even bothered to get published. Here, he skunks Helen MacInnes; he drop-kicks Alistair MacLean; he spanks Ian Fleming and sends him home crying. For what it’s worth, The Dead Man’s Brother even gives John LeCarre a wedgie.
But since I brought up LeCarre, it’s worth considering for a moment where international thrillers like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold deviate from international thrillers like The Dead Man’s Brother. I think it’s important, to me at least, in figuring out why Zelazny and LeCarre occupy very different niches in my pantheon of genre writers.
My one beef with Zelazny has always been that he never seemed to push himself in dealing with deeper themes. Though his life seems to have had its share of drama — as does everyone’s — most of his work seems to only hint at a depth of inner experience.
Meanwhile John LeCarre is at times as brilliant a stylist as Zelazny, but LeCarre’s action scenes and incidences of physical jeopardy and emotional tension lack the intensity I crave in my crime novels. As an amateur student of British history, I find generalizations about the “English character” deeply distasteful, but there’s no escaping the fact that for my American tastes, LeCarre is usually if not always far too polite. If even the boneheaded Ian Fleming could be bothered to thrill at violence now and then, doesn’t it stand to reason that a competent writer like LeCarre, whose ideas reflect a bona-fide political existentialism at times, would bring an urgency to his violent scenes that matches or exceeds other spy writers who don’t seem to have a deep or wounded sense of life’s futility and beauty?
Sadly…not really. LeCarre has written effective scenes of menace, to my mind, in only two novels — the aforementioned The Spy Who Came in… and Our Game. He tried with Absolute Friends, but never got there because by the time on-screen violence occurs, the novel has long since lapsed into pedantry. Most of LeCarre’s works in the interim have been weak on the action and long on the slow.
Why I mention it here is that LeCarre’s works, on the other hand, feature the intensely powerful interpersonal and political themes that I always want from a stylist as evocative as Zelazny, but never quite get. In The Dead Man’s Brother, Zelazny unquestionably comes closer to those interpersonal insights and real-world intensity than he did anywhere else, with the exception of his brilliant early short stories and novellas.
It may sound like a strange observation, but I think if Zelazny had gone the direction that The Dead Man’s Brother seemed to have been taking him, there’s a chance he might have gotten there. Zelazny certainly had the brains and the balls to understand how the world works, on an interpersonal, geopolitical and historical level, and the humanity to care. The fact that he seems to have remained largely apolitical in his writing may not be an absolute of his personality, and it might have changed in the environment that ’70s crime novels would have represented. Not having known the man, I wouldn’t really know.
Anyway, back to The Dead Man’s Brother itself, with which I have no beef whatsoever — “deeper themes” be damned, it’s one of the best crime novels ever written.
The aforementioned Trent Zelazny, the Z-man’s son, speculates in his afterword that his father did not plan the book as his “breakthrough,” but rather just wrote what was in his brain. He says that at the time it was (probably) written, Zelazny was reading a lot of crime fiction, so it makes sense he would have headed this direction…knowing Roger Z’s writing, it does seem unlikely that he sat down and planned it out as a career move. From what I can tell, he wrote what he loved at any given moment…a habit that is in keeping with his visceral love of language.
If you’re an aspiring action writer, there is no better tutorial on how to write action scenes than reading The Dead Man’s Brother alongside Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. If you’re a science fiction or fantasy fan, it doesn’t get better than Zelazny’s writing in either genre, especially some of his his stunning early short stories and novellas.
But regardless of whether you give a damn about science fiction or Roger Zelazny, if you appreciate a crime thriller that punches you in the face so hard you have to go looking for your molars about six blocks over, grab The Dead Man’s Brother and see how it’s done.
(Originally reviewed on Thomasroche.com, 04/25/2009)