Soap Opera

The problem with mystery novels is that they’re not very mysterious anymore. Somewhere between the moment when Mike Hammer stopped hurting ‘em and Spencer picked up his spatula and a girlfriend that lasted longer than a novel, mystery writers took their eye off the bullet, so to speak, and decided to write more about the world around them than the body in front of them.

This gives mystery novels the depth and a writerly polish found in contemporary literature. It can also made them either unutterably dull or unbelievably pretentious. Realistically, most people lead lives that are interesting to no one but them. Mine is certainly like that, which is why contemporary books contain little of the juice found in genre novels that feature spunky senior citizens or burned-out Los Angeles police detectives.

On the other hand, juicing up the stories with Shakespearean conflict rendered in the gravelly tones of a world-weary narrator starts sounding ridiculous long about page five. I still remember when the hero in James Lee Burke’s “Cimarron Rose” rides his horse into the restaurant to rope a bad guy and give him a taste of justice, Texas-style. In real life, he would have been blasted out of the saddle by half the patrons with their lawfully concealed handguns, or the bad guy would have slapped a lawsuit on him, filed charges sent his ass up to the state pen in Nagadouches.

“Cimarron Rose,” by the way, won an Edgar award.

“A Body in the Bathhouse” is a mix of the world-weary investigator tinged with the dullness of life in the Britain of 75 A.D. Marcus Didius Falco is an informer for the emperor. He’s walks the mean streets of Rome and like most detectives has seen it all, but he soldiers on because he has a wife he loves and children and relatives he tolerates and supports. He also has a ne’er-do-well father whose bathhouse was recently renovated, but the contractors left a smell under the newly laid mosaic floor that leads shortly to the use of pickaxes followed by the inevitable discovery.

Then the story veers northward. From a brief investigation, largely off-stage, Falco suspects two notorious contractors of doing the deed and high-tailing it out of town, to join a massive building project on the coast of Britain. He never explains how he came to this conclusion. It’s not only the sole building project in the entire empire, but by a marvelous coincidence, the emperor also wants Falco to go there, to look into a palace being built for the local king that’s over budget and behind schedule.

For added story interest, the rest of Falco’s family gets dragged along, starting with his wife and their two infants. Since Falco’s sister recently dumped the emperor’s chief spy, who trashed her house, she comes along as well. Then there are the two cousins, both young and worthless men, who want to learn the informing business.

After a brief, tedious trip through Gaul, they arrive at the building site, Falco meets the king, the architect (arrogant, as always) and the subcontractors, so we get page after page of discussions about sedimented facades, interior flow-throughs, sight-lines, triple-succession promenades, and soon the eyes begin to glaze over when this is followed by a discussion about how building projects were financed and how the bookkeeping was done, and soon you’re wishing that you were that body in the bathhouse because then you’ll miss all of this.

It takes about 230 pages to set up the dominos which fall in the last third. That’s when things start happening, mostly of the running around and beating up or avoiding getting beat up kind, but at least it gets us out of the Roman Empire edition of “Hometime.” But there’s no real detection going on, and threats foreshadowed through most of the book fizzle out like a damp squibs. Everything turns out all right in the end, of course, and the soap opera situations are mildly diverting, but “Bathhouse” needed a stronger foundation to become a more compelling story.