Retro fix–Roger Zelazny’s lost crime thriller novel, The Dead Man’s Brother

Review by C.J. Bunce

Most of the world knew Roger Zelazny for his fantasy and science fiction short stories and novels.  Neil Gaiman has cited Zelazny as his greatest influence.  In his 58 years Zelazny won three Nebula awards and six Hugo awards, and is best known for The Chronicles of Amber His “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” was included in the DVD collection Visions of Mars: First Library on Mars, taken onto the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008.  In 2008 an unpublished novel was located, a crime thriller by Zelazny called The Dead Man’s Brother, and Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint published it for the first time ever in 2009.  We’re reviewing it here as part of our excursion into lost novels and our “Retro Fix” series for fans who thought they’d read the entirety of their favorite authors’ works.  Previous works reviewed here include lost novels by Michael Crichton, James M. Cain, Donald E. Westlake, Lawrence Block, Gore Vidal, and others, as well as several forgotten classics of science fiction, fantasy, and pulp noir.  In an afterword by the author’s son Trent Zelazny, he comments on his father and writing genre, “Great writers will never hold back due to genre.  They will tell the story they want–or must–in spite of the limiting labels designed  by publishers.  They don’t think of themselves as science fiction writers or mystery writers or western writers.  They think of themselves simply as writers, period.”

In Roger Zelazny’s crime thriller The Dead Man’s Brother, his hero Ovid Wiley runs Taurus art gallery in New York.  Wiley is a former art smuggler and also a former CIA operative whose genetics (explained in the book) reflected a type of super soldier tendency.  At present, the early 1970s, Wiley had cleaned up his act for the most part, still in the art world buying and selling artwork as a respectable art dealer.  In the first scene we meet Wiley entering his gallery to find the dead body of his former partner in crime, a man he had neither seen nor thought about in several years.  Wiley is then accused of his murder, but the CIA intercedes.  It turns out they could use his unique skill set and familiarity with Rome specifically to earn a “get out of jail free” card by finding a missing priest alleged to have stolen millions from the Vatican.  Wiley begrudgingly agrees, and his investigation re-introduces him to the dead partner’s girlfriend and finds the embezzling priest dead.  Before he gets accused of that murder, he takes the girlfriend in tow and heads to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to locate the dead man’s brother.  He is imprisoned and tortured by locals for days, getting into a bizarre national conflict he has no interest in.  Armed with a machete and thoughts of revenge, he ventures home with a package and secret information.

Fans of Zelazny’s writing are the real target for this novel.  The tale is not particularly gripping, yet readers will stick with Zelazny to the end simply to see what completely insane circumstance his hero is going to get involved with next.  The Dead Man’s Brother often reads like an early draft–many stream-of-conscience paragraphs pepper the plot that conjure the image of a writer who sat “butt in chair” and wrote from beginning to end, intending to return with a few good edits later.  Little is known why this novel was shelved, and it is only a guess that he wrote the book around 1970-1971.  Was he merely experimenting with styles?  Was he attempting to write his own version of an American James Bond or dabble with mainstream works?  More than a few threads remain hanging by the end of The Dead Man’s Brother.  Presumably he intended to return to finesse these once the novel was sold?

Some of the decisions of his hero seem preposterous and yet Zelazny seems to know this, as if he wrote the scenario and then went back to highlight the oddities sometimes by actually having Wiley state that he knew he was about to do something stupid, but was charging ahead anyway because that was his nature (or more likely because Zelazny needed the action to get his protagonist to the next exotic location?).  The novel reflects a solid writer–it is simply a few substantive edits shy of being as good as a Westlake or Crichton or Fleming novel.  It does seem to be that Zelazny was interested in writing a survival tale for a CIA agent stuck in the Brazilian jungles.  His story reflects someone who had researched both the art scene in Rome and the social and cultural goings-on in contemporary Brazil.

Zelazny demonstrates a 1960s meandering style, taking the reader by the shoulder along for a lengthy conversation where he incorporates the irrelevant in an old storyteller’s way at first presumably to attempt to illustrate a point and then only to illustrate the character’s own quirks and state of mind at a given moment.  With a tendency to drift off at the height of action into self-reflective, esoteric asides, Zelazny’s writing drags periodically if not frequently.

At only 252 pages this won’t be a difficult choice to pick up for fans of the author or those new to his works not aware of this lost work.  Roger Zelazny’s The Dead Man’s Brother is available here at Amazon.

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