by Peter Spiegelman
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
288 pages, 2007
Sex, Lies and DVDs
Reviewed by James R. Winter
Adultery is a private investigator's stock in trade. Cheating spouses and blackmail problems keep P.I.s in business. So it's no surprise that, after more than a month without work, John March's latest case, in Peter Spiegelman's Red Cat, is one of adultery. What's surprising is that the client is his elder brother, David. Even more surprising: David is the adulterer.
New Yorker John March comes from a family of merchant bankers. Being a P.I. makes him the black sheep of the family. That alone makes it tough for David to come to him with his problem. Making matters worse, David likes to control everything around him. He even married a like-minded control freak named Stephanie.
What he can't control is his anonymous Internet lover, Wren. David met Wren in a chat room, hooked up a few times, and thought that was the end. But Wren won't have it. She wants to see David. She won't be ignored. She promises to call his wife, his family, his employers. David's state of mind takes John aback when he comes to call.
I'd seen him angry plenty of times. I'd seen him dismissive, contemptuous, reproachful, and mocking too -- and more often than not, I'd seen that bad karma pointed in my direction. But in the thirty-four years I'd known him, I'd never seen my brother quite like this before. I'd never seen him scared.
Reluctantly, John takes the case and begins pulling at the thread of Wren. Or should we say, Holly Cade, minor playwright? Or is it Cassandra Z, the star and producer of some bizarre, arty, erotic videos? What in the hell has David gotten himself into? To John March, it looks as though Wren/Holly/Cassandra is blackmailing his brother, but she hasn't asked for money. In fact, by the time John tracks her down, she's disappeared--and David faces a murder charge. John refers him to lawyer Mike Metz, but David March proves to be an uncooperative client. He also looks guilty.
It's hard for P.I. John to be judgmental toward his brother. He can look down on him for being so controlling. He can criticize him for being almost pathologically stubborn. But adultery? David's sin underscores John's own, as his rich and married girlfriend, Clare, spends more and more time at March's Manhattan apartment. Our hero's confusion over why someone would put his brother into his present straights puts a strain on his and Clare's relationship.
In his third novel (after Black Maps and Death's Little Helpers), Shamus Award-winning writer Peter Spiegelman plays David and John off against each other well, using their differences to illuminate their individual characters. However, most unsettling for John is how much he -- and the rest of their siblings -- are alike. They're aloof and seldom speak to one another. Yet it's only David who's obsessive about needing control. As a character, he has few, if any, redeeming qualities. And he pays a heavy toll for his obsession, becoming an alcoholic and a nervous wreck overnight.
Still, it's the fetching Holly Cade, aka Cassandra Z, aka Wren, who is the most compelling character in Red Cat, even though we see her only on video. Her disappearance raises more questions about her than it answers. Although the police are particularly fond of David as a possible killer, John uncovers a longer list of suspects. For starters, Cassandra's sex tapes were made anonymously, except for a humiliating confrontation at the end of each. Several of her subjects had ample motive to kill her. Tracing backward, there's a thread of adultery and its consequences that runs through her life. From her dark family past, with a sister who makes John's own siblings seem damned cuddly, to a series of bad plays about fathers who compulsively hurt their daughters by cheating, to her utterly compelling sex videos, wherein she stalks the adulterers, Holly/Cassandra is fixated on finding the truth. And like most obsessives, it's clear she doesn't know what that truth lies.
Then there are Holly/Cassandra's ex-lovers--the real ex-lovers, not just men she slept with for her art. There's Gene Werner, the sadly devoted former boyfriend with whom she once ran a theater company. He still can't let her go. Then there's Jamie Coyle, the ex-con bouncer. John discovers that Coyle had anger management problems, which landed him in prison. He also discovers that Coyle's not everything his violent demeanor would lead one to believe.
The character I liked best here, however, was Stephanie, David's equally controlling wife. We meet her first as she confronts John about helping David hide something. While that initial appearance does not endear her to the reader, later scenes--in which she realizes just how chaotic her life and her husband's have become--that make her essential to this tale. While Stephanie is as controlling as David, she demonstrates a refreshing lack of something David could stand to lose: hubris.
... Stephanie shook her head and picked at a seam on her jeans. "Do you know why I wanted to talk to you?"
"Not because we're so close?"
Stephanie shook her head. "It's more because we never pretended to be," she said. "We've never liked each other --" I started to speak but she waved it away. "Don't bother, John, not now. We've never liked each other, but we've never lied to each other that way. In fact, you're the only one in this nightmare who hasn't lied to me."
"Mike Metz --"
"I don't know Mike Metz from Adam. Maybe he's as good a lawyer as everyone says -- I pray to God he is -- and maybe when I get to know him I'll trust him. But right now he's just a voice on the phone, and I don't have it in me to talk to a stranger about this, not yet. What I want now is someone I know, and someone who won't bullshit me."
"Even if it's someone you don't particularly like?"
Again a fragile smile. "Strange, huh, trusting a person you don't like?"
Maybe not so strange, considering the twists and turns this plot takes. About the only two characters who are not suspected of anything in this yarn are county sheriff's deputy-turned-gumshoe John March and the high-maintenance Clare. And that's only because Clare is at John's apartment most of the time. To me, though, the above passage underscores the emotional complexity of Red Cat. Spiegelman strips the layers off even his most minor characters and reveals them to be something more than they appear at first to be. Initial impressions here serve only to misdirect the reader.
Kind of like real life, though much more exciting.
And unsettling. | April 2007
James R. Winter is a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and a reviewer for Reflections in a Private Eye, the newsletter of the Private Eye Writers of America. His first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, came and went in 2005. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Winter now makes his home in suburban Cincinnati, where he works for an insurance company. His short fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and ThugLit, as well as at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Crime Scene Scotland. He enjoys hiking and travel and is a rabid rock-trivia buff. Send kielbasa, as he misses Cleveland.