Carter Campbell “turns on” a chemically assisted high whenever his wallet and his dealer will accommodate him. He “tunes in” to the frequency of a long-defunct 1960s counter-culture. And quite clearly he has decided to “drop out” of the world that he sees through the window of the taxi that he drives—the high-tech, money-mad world of San Francisco in the late 1990s. Campbell has an old flame who’s now a hotshot lawyer at a tony Market Street firm, and he has a daughter who thrives in the city’s computer-geek culture. But he’s just a grad-school refugee (he studied English literature at U.C. Berkeley many years ago), and time seems to be passing him by. He has no career per se; to keep his ill-kempt body and his misanthropic soul together, he hacks a cab. Then, one day, an old friend presents Campbell with a problem and spurs him to take up a new calling: He becomes an unlicensed private investigator.
He is not, as it happens, terribly good at that job. Or, to be precise, he’s not consistently good at it. Brasse, at key points in the story, paints Campbell as an out-of-touch buffoon—as a feckless and cowardly stoner who hardly inspires confidence as a solver of mysteries or a righter of wrongs. That’s a real flaw: The lead character in a detective novel doesn’t need to stay one step ahead of the reader at all times, but he shouldn’t appear to be stumbling behind the reader in a drug-fueled haze, either. All the same, it’s a flaw that detracts only somewhat from the overall quality of the work at hand, a novel smoothly and cleverly riffs on the structure and style of a classic private-eye tale. Like many such tales, Sirens takes its hero on a latter-day odyssey through the social, economic, and emotional terrors that lurk at the edges of a recognizably contemporary world. Campbell, despite his sub-heroic sleuthing activity, performs well enough in his role as a burned-out Odysseus. He’s a castaway, a man in exile from the true home of his spirit, but he manages in the end to survive his trek through alien territory. Like his forebears in the P.I. genre, moreover, he recounts his adventures in a strong, smart-alecky voice.
In the particulars of its plot, Sirens is very much a book of the 1990s. A decade and a half later, its up-to-the-minute details seem almost more dated than the Summer of Love mind-set of its protagonist. Consider a few of the clues that Brasse weaves into his tale: a computer floppy disk that appears mysteriously in an office break-room coffee canister; a VHS tape that shows an ordinary guy performing a series of drably ordinary actions; vials of a medicine that may or may not successfully treat AIDS, a disease that is otherwise assumed to be terminal. A floppy disk? A VHS tape? Oh, shades of yesteryear! Other elements in the case are less time-bound. There are two murder victims, a man and a woman, and Campbell’s investigation focuses extensively on the two surviving spouses—a woman who might have loved her husband too little, and a man who might have loved his wife too dearly. Campbell also devotes a lot of time to prowling around a large Bay Area shipping company where both victims worked. There, he encounters a crew of office drones (Brasse renders them in amusingly satiric terms), and wonders whether corporate skullduggery led one of them to become a killer.
Brasse apparently self-published this effort (it was issued by Rough Magic Press, an outfit that publishes books only by him), and thus it flies well below the literary-commercial radar. Nonetheless, as a work of smart entertainment, it soars to an impressive height.