Fiction: “Festival of Deaths” by Jane Haddam

Festival of DeathsI guess I wasn’t really aware that it had been more than two years since the last time I read a Gregor Demarkian mystery. I became aware of that fact when, a couple of months ago, in the process of cleaning the apartment for a Christmas party, I decided to reorganize all of my bookshelves instead of, y’know, dusting. The upside? Although it is nowhere near the universally-accepted Dewey Decimal System, my books are now organized into a rhyme and reason of my own making. So, y’know; “madness.”

The downside is that, even after all of that, I need at least one more bookcase and one more wall for said bookcase. I can get the bookcase; it’s the wall that’s the hard part.

ANYWAY. I was also fairly proud of my ability to time the reading of Festival of Deaths in the same time-space as Hanukkah. But guys, I’m getting better – this time I’m only a month and a half delayed from when I finished the book? And I’ve only got two more books to review for 2015 before I can get into the 2016 titles? So, y’know; better.

I liked this one better than Dear Old Dead because the gang was back together. Dear Old Dead took Gregor out of Philadelphia, and without Bennis and Father Tibor and the backdrop of Cavanaugh Street, Gregor and the mystery became very bland and … well, boring. This book brings the mystery to Gregor in Philadelphia, so Bennis and the rest are able to tag along and offer their insights.

Dr. Lotte Goldman is a talk show host in the vein of Dr. Ruth meeting Oprah. Her topics usually discuss sex, and most of the discussions are either bringing habits that everyone has to the light, or unveiling deviant behavior. Gregor gets involved in two ways: first, Lotte wants him to be on the episode wherein “Sex and the Serial Killer” is discussed (Gregor would be talking about the serial killer aspect, as he worked with the Behavioral Sciences unit at the FBI; Gregor would not be discussing the sex aspect, because Gregor is, above all things, kind of a prude about that stuff). Second, Lotte wants Gregor to help explore the murder of one of the employees of the TV studio.

Festival of Deaths follows very the Gregor Demarkian formula very closely. The initial murder happens, then Gregor gets dragged into it after the fact. Father Tibor tells him he should totally investigate this murder; Bennis wants to help solve it too mainly because other stuff in her life is slowing down – her latest book has been sent to the editor, and now she’s faced with dealing with her empty apartment and the fact that her sister is on Death Row for killing their father. Once Gregor shows up – reluctantly; after all, he is retired – another body surfaces right under his nose, which forces him to get involved. Gregor usually identifies the murderer before the murderer kills a third person, and then in the epilogue Gregor explains to Bennis the murderer’s motive and the method.

I discussed this briefly in a previous title in the series, but the Gregor Demarkian novels are set apart from other mystery series I read in that the novels are told from third-person perspective of multiple characters. The prologue never contains Gregor; instead, Ms. Haddam introduces the cast of characters that will be involved in the mystery. One of them is the murderer; some of them are future victims. It’s an interesting way of tackling the narrative. (It’s also the reason my mother hasn’t read any of these; she started reading Not a Creature Was Stirring, the first novel, and really liked one of the characters. She then skipped ahead [it’s where I get it from!] and found out that the character she liked ended up the murderer. She put it down and never went back.)

When we view the plot from Gregor’s perspective, we learn about his Cavanaugh Street Regulars through his perceptions. We never hear Father Tibor’s inner thoughts; we can guess at Bennis’s thoughts because she’s the type of person to telegraph her every emotion onto her face.

Here are two examples of how we learn more about the supporting cast through Gregor’s perceptions. We have been told through multiple titles in this series that Tibor is a voracious reader of any and all genres. His apartment probably resembles mine, in that every available surface is covered in books. We get that reiterated in this book, along with:

[Gregor] got out of his chair and made his way back across the obstacle course of books, wondering when Tibor got the time to read like this when he spent so much time making Gregor Demarkian’s life resemble one of the wilder plays of Ionesco. [p. 73]

(Ionesco was, along with Samuel Beckett, one of the figureheads of the French absurdist dramatic period.)

And if you want to know about Bennis Hannaford and how she deals with people, there’s this paragraph:

What she got for herself was another cigarette, long and slim and taken from the sterling-silver Tiffany cigarette case her brother Chris had given her for her birthday a few years back. Bennis never took cigarettes from that case. She had a crumpled paper pack of Benson & Hedges Menthols in the pocket of her shirt. Gregor could only conclude that she had taken a dislike to Sarah Meyer equal to the one Sarah had taken to her. Bennis was pulling out all the stops. [p. 155]

Look, I don’t smoke, but that’s definitely one of the better ways to show people how much you absolutely hate them without saying a word. Luckily, I’ve perfected my withering glare; it’ll have to do.

Finally, the relationship between Gregor and Bennis is brought up again. Throughout the series thus far, Gregor and Bennis have maintained they are just friends. The rest of Cavanaugh Street is convinced that they should get married, but to date, there hasn’t even been the hint of any romantic love. This book takes about a page wherein Gregor reflects on his relationship with Bennis, and this is the first inclination the reader gets that Gregor may think about Bennis more than just platonically:

Even Gregor and Bennis didn’t have conversations of any formal kind. When he went down to visit her, or she came up to visit him, they talked about his work or hers or Cavanaugh Street, but mostly they talked about each other. Gregor knew everything about Bennis’s latest Zed and Zedalia novel. […] He didn’t know anything at all about the young man who had taken Bennis to dinner last week and didn’t want to know. Bennis knew all about Gregor’s last case – he always filled her in when the cases were over; he didn’t want her trying to be an amateur detective, but he did like to hear her comments once the coast was clear – but nothing about his visits to [his wife’s] grave. Gregor didn’t know if that was all right with her or not. Sometimes he worried that he didn’t do more talking to Bennis in the way men usually talk to women they are close to because he was afraid to. What would he talk about, if Bennis insisted? The fact that they now spent more time with each other than most people who were married? The fact that except for one minor technicality, they might as well be married? On second thought, that technicality wasn’t so minor after all. What was also not minor was the fact that he seemed to have wound his life around an extremely rich, extremely pretty, extremely impetuous, relatively young woman on whom he had no real hold at all. [p. 200]

I continue to enjoy these books – which is good, because I’ve got a lot of them. I will try to not let more than a few months go between this one and the next title in the series, but, y’know; no promises.

Grade for Festival of Deaths: 3 stars



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