Fiction: “Feast of Murder” by Jane Haddam

Well, I managed to fulfill one of my goals for this vacation: I wanted to finish one of the three books I was reading. This one won (beating out Chuck Klosterman’s IV and yet more adventures of Sherlock Holmes).

Feast of Murder is the sixth book in the Gregor Demarkian Holiday series, directly following A Great Day for the Deadly, and I can thankfully say that snakes were nowhere to be found in this one. The Feast refers to the great American tradition of Thanksgiving. Can I first talk about the title? This is easily one of the cheesiest titles in the entire series. Honestly: Feast of Murder? It sounds like something Rick Castle would make jokes about. “It’s a feast! … Of murder.” Come on.

Thankfully, the plot is only thisside of ludicrous, but nowhere near as outlandish something Castle would dream up. (I may not have mentioned previously: I really kinda dig the TV show Castle.) The plot: Gregor Demarkian is invited to an authentic Thanksgiving feast aboard the Pilgrimage Green, an authentic replica of the Mayflower. Why is Gregor invited, you ask? Well, he’s kind of brought along with the invitation to his friend, Bennis Hannaford, but it turns out that she was only invited to get him to come, and the premise has something to do with investigating leaks in a financial situation. But really, that is just a premise: financial situations take a backburner to what is really going on.

In the prologue (the part where we, the reader, are introduced to all of the possible suspects), Donald McAdam dies (ack! Spoiler alert! Oh wait, it’s in the first 50 pages, that’s not really a spoiler) by ingesting cocaine with strychnine. Or so we’re led to believe. Anyway, Baird Financial was buying McAdam out of his contract on the day he died. Jon Baird, head of Baird Financial, is the one who invites Gregor onto his authentic replica of the Mayflower for the aforementioned Thanksgiving feast. Jon Baird was recently released from prison following him pleading guilty to insider trading. Again, backburner. Baird’s entire extended family and heads of his financial departments are on board the Pilgrimage Green, and yes, there is a feast, and yes, there is a murder.

Unlike other Demarkian novels, there’s only the one additional body — usually there are two. The second body dies much in the same way as McAdam: death exacerbated by strychnine. The only true impediment is that the second death occurs on the Pilgrimage Green. While they’re out to sea, floating between Virginia and Massachusetts. And Gregor wants to keep the body on board until they can contact the Coast Guard, but there are no radios on board because it’s an authentic replica of the Mayflower. There is a distinct air of a Locked Room mystery about the plot, where it seems as if all the characters/suspects are involved in the murder together in some way, but the ending is both predictable, yet not.

Because Bennis is working closer with Gregor in this entry than in A Great Day for the Deadly, I can begin to explore some of the dynamics. As I’ve said before, Gregor and Bennis live on Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia, in the same apartment building. Bennis has never been married; Gregor is a widower. Bennis moved to Cavanaugh Street after meeting Gregor in the first Demarkian novel, Not a Creature Was Stirring, which involved the Hannaford family. Bennis and Gregor are friends, and Gregor and Bennis are highly resistant to the idea of being more than that. Their friends on Cavanaugh Street (namely, the women of Cavanaugh Street) are hoping more come of that. When Bennis and Gregor are accidentally given the same cabin, funky sleeping arrangements must be made:

“Don’t you think we ought to do something about this? About where we sleep, I mean.”

“Do what?”

“Well,” Bennis said slowly. “I’ve been thinking about it. You really can’t take the other bunk, Gregor, and neither can I. No adult human being would fit. So I thought, you know, that maybe what we ought to do is bundle.”

“What do you mean, bundle?”

“It was a form of courting in Colonial New England,” Bennis said, “which seems entirely appropriate to me. Not the courting part, Gregor, the part about Colonial New England. Anyway, what you do is, the woman […] gets in bed and gets wrapped up in the sheets like a mummy so she can’t move, and then the man does the same thing, and then they sleep together. No hanky panky. Lots of conversation. It was supposed to be a great way for two people to get to know each other.”

“Get to know each other,” Gregor repeated stupefied. “Bennis, are you out of your mind?”

“According to you, yes.”

“Bennis, listen to me. Do you realize what would happen, if we do what you’re suggesting and it got out on Cavanaugh Street?”

“How would it get out on Cavanaugh Street?”

“You’d tell Donna Moradanyan. Donna Moradanyan would tell her mother. Marie would tell Lida Arkmanian — how do you think it would get out on Cavanaugh Street?”

“Now, Gregor —”

“And you think you’ve got problems now with them trying to match make us together,” Gregor said. “I’d come home from the library one day and find the church decked out with flowers and old George all ready to give you away. They’d probably have you chained to the church door so you couldn’t bold. What’s the matter with you?” [209-210]

I’m not going to tell you where Gregor does end up sleeping. Regardless, the idea of other people thinking he and Bennis are an item tends to unnerve Gregor (even while the idea of Bennis with Tony Baird, Jon Baird’s son, tends to unnerve Gregor as well. He never gives a name to it, but it’s obvious to the reader that Gregor feels threatened and definitely jealous of Tony, even when there’s nothing between either man and Bennis. Very eeeeinteresting.)

Other points that are made: you get a somewhat clearer picture of Gregor’s life in the Bureau. It’s referenced a couple of times in this book that Gregor wasn’t a very physically active agent: his physicality was exhibited by his mind powers. Not to say at times physicality isn’t warranted or desired:

He really was exasperated beyond all measure. What he wanted to do was kick the door in and shout, “This is a raid!” at the top of his lungs. He’d never in his life done anything even remotely like that. He’d never sprung into firing position and shouted “Freeze!” either. He thought it would be good for his soul. [248]

But what comes through repeatedly with Gregor and his life at the Bureau is how logical his thinking processes are. Logical and philosophical:

It was comforting to realize that the world still operated on logic, even if it pretended not to. [74]

More likely, it was just plain human nature, seen more clearly in the raw than it once had been. Whatever it was, it suited Gregor’s purpose very well. Spectators were never mere spectators. They were always reviewers as well. They liked to talk. [182]

I may come back to this quote later.

Before I get to the “It’s all about Alaina” segment, I’d like to point out some funny bits. This was a letter Gregor was delivered by a very young FBI agent (like, to-the-agency-young, like, so young Gregor could spot Newbie Agent a mile away):

He opened the envelope, pulled out a square of what was closer to cardboard than paper, and read:

Gregor. I know, I know. I couldn’t help it. I was swamped and I didn’t have any other choice. Be nice to the boy. I need the information. Steve.

[70]

And this made me laugh out loud:

“Did you talk to Calvin Baird today?” he asked Bennis.

Bennis made a face. “Of course I did. Everybody’s talked to Calvin Baird today. He’s been wandering up and down the boat, behaving like the ancient mariner of certified accounting.” [207]

I can just imagine Calvin Baird roaming up and down the halls with an albatross around his neck. (Oh, the benefits of being an English Lit minor – the random references and images you come up with!)

So, back to me now. Let’s start with this and then finish with that quote from above. Gregor’s reading the FBI file on Jon Baird, and this comes up:

As in any FBI report, there were lists of many things, some of them so arbitrary you had to wonder why the list maker had bothered. Gregor always imagined them being put together by a little man with an eyeshade who lived in a vault deep in Bureau headquarters, and who wrote lists for secular sources, like The Book of Lists, in his spare time. [214]

I feel that this is a book I could write. A Book of Lists. I mean, I am so great at making lists! To do lists (that never get completed), lists of movies I own (versus the movies I’ve seen, versus the movies I’ve bought intending to watch but never do), lists of TV episodes-slash-movies I can quote verbatim (“Pier Pressure”, “Afternoon Delight”, Die Hard, Back to the Future), lists of geek t-shirts I own, lists of books I’ve read and how they affected me — oh, wait.

Seriously, oh, wait: that first quote, about spectators never being mere spectators, but reviewers as well. I think this is even more apparent today than in 1992 when Feast of Murder was published. With the internet being so prevalent in everything we do, anyone with a blog becomes a reviewer. I am a structured reviewer: I review books, as I read them. But on my other, completely private, never-been-published-on-the-Internet-so-don’t-go-looking-for-it journal, I’m a reviewer there, too. Not necessarily of structured items (books, movies, music, etc.), but of human nature. Like the story of the lady who came to my place of business thinking she had a tick bite her, when really, it was just a flea. Or my co-workers, and the crazy-assed things they do which amuse me to no end (really, Brad, you want to bitch about the schedule when I’m carrying the Large Pokey Stick of Doom?). Or my sister, who I maintain is even funnier than me.

If you have an IP address and a blog, chances are, you’re a reviewer of something. And, going with that logic, if you’re a reviewer, and a consolidator of information (like Gregor Demarkian), you can be a private detective-cum-consultant, too.

Which is what I really want to be when I grow up.

Grade for Feast of Murder: 2.5 stars

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