This isn’t a bad book, but it’s a disappointing one. It makes promises—some implicit in the detective genre, some unique to this effort—and fails to keep them. A detective tale, by tradition, holds forth the promise of a meaningful murder and the promise of a resolution that will derive from applied intelligence (from detection, in other words). The author of such a tale presents a corpse, posits a killer, and in effect pledges to make significant the quest to learn what brought those two people into fatal conflict. Yet here we learn nothing until the very end about either the victim (not even his identity) or the murderer. What we do discover about them comes not through detection, but by authorial revelation. Their lives, and their violence-engendering passions, take place entirely offstage and serve only as a pretext for the main act.
The main act has a star: Brother Erasmus, a homeless man and a “Holy Fool” who refuses to speak except by quoting from the Bible, from Shakespeare, or from some other ancient source. Erasmus knew the dead man and seems to know something about his killing. But how to interpret the cryptic utterances of this would-be modern jester? And why does he insist on communicating in that way? In setting up those questions, King suggests that her protagonists, Kate Martinelli and Alonzo Hawkin of the San Francisco police, will glean the answers through a close reading of the material that Erasmus quotes. King also implies that those answers will be powerful and revelatory, that they will expose a profoundly cunning method behind the fool’s apparent madness. Yet when they come—again, by revelation rather than through detection—the answers amount to little more than a shaggy-dog tale. (“Who’s the real fool here?” one might well ask.) Fascinating in their own right, they seem negligible as the payoff of a book-length sleuthing adventure.