Mr. Clarinet

by Nick Stone

Published by Michael Joseph Ltd.

576 pages, 2006






Music to Our Ears

Reviewed by Ali Karim


One of the real thrills to be found in reviewing books is stumbling across the occasional unexpected masterwork, and Nick Stone's debut novel, Mr. Clarinet, is just such a tour de force. Like the entries in John Burdett's exotic series, set in Thailand's capital (Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo, the latter of which was a January Magazine gift guide choice for 2005), Stone's focus here is on a locale -- the Caribbean island nation of Haiti -- that's as generally familiar for its quality of dark mystery as it is unknown for its reality. While Mr. Clarinet will do little to enhance Haiti's tourism numbers, it should do a great deal for Stone's career as an author of thrillers. Reminiscent of William Hjortsberg's 1978 novel, Falling Angel (which was later filmed by Alan Parker as Angel Heart), as well as John Connolly's The Black Angel (2005), Mr. Clarinet weaves a Chandler-esque detective yarn from the ashes of the past and the painful, yet boasts a voice that's as fresh as it is dangerous. Even now, long after I turned the last page of Stone's novel, his story hangs with me, haunting my dreams and rousing me from sleep, my skin filmed with sweat, icy sweat.

Trust me when I say that this is one very scary, but unputdownable tome.

It grabs you right from the opening, even though Stone employs a plot device that borders on cliché: an ex-cop turned private eye being asked to chase down a missing child. In most cases, this would lead me to deliver my best jaded reviewer yawn, but the remarkable thing about Stone's prose is how much it helps turn what might, in another author's hands, have been commonplace storytelling into a fictional gem. The protagonist in Mr. Clarinet is Max Mingus, a Miami P.I. who specializes in finding lost children. He also happens to be an ex-con, imprisoned for killing three sadistic murderers. Newly released from New York City's Rikers Island jail, he's still mourning the loss of his wife, Sandra, who only days before his release died at the wheel of her car after swerving into the path of an oncoming truck. With nothing left to lose, Mingus goes to work for the mysterious Haitian billionaire Allain Carver, whose son, Charlie, disappeared in their mountainous homeland three years ago. It's a lucrative investigation to be sure, paying a cool $10 million. However, it has also cost several previous detectives dearly, as Mingus discovers in the opening scene:

"There's one other thing," Carver said when he'd finished talking. "If you take the job, it's going to be dangerous ... Make that very dangerous."

"How so?" Max asked.

"Your predecessors, they ... Things didn't turn out too right for them."

"They dead?"

There was a pause. Carver's face turned grim and his skin lost a little of its color.

"No ... not dead," he said, finally. "Worse. Much worse."

To get a better handle on the case, Mingus goes to check on one of the P.I.s Carver had previously hired, a sleazebag named Clyde Beeson. The scene in which Mingus encounters Beeson will take a long time to erase from my memory, such is the surreal and shocking fate that befell that unfortunate investigator. From there, the trail leads our hero to Haiti, a country closely associated with voodoo and other "black arts," where many children before Charlie Carver have vanished without so much as a trace. A country filled with elusive rumors about a figure of magic and myth called "Mr. Clarinet," who like some seriously demented Pied Piper has supposedly been leading boys and girls astray from their loving families for many decades. According to author Stone's bio, he spent his early years residing in Haiti, and his mother is a descendent of "one of Haiti's oldest families." So he knows a thing or two about the history and eccentric traditions of that place, which comes through in his writing.

As Mingus traverses the island republic, trying to find Charlie and figure out what -- if any -- truth lies behind the legend of Mr. Clarinet, he's wise to watch his back. It's impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad ones crowding these pages, which gives the narrative a slippery, nerve-wracking quality. Also intriguing is the landscape, both natural and cultural, against which Stone's story plays out. It's peppered with innumerable contradictions and makes clear that in this life, no one is truly innocent. Mingus soon discovers that his own past is unpredictably linked with that of the misplaced Charlie, and that $10 million is reflective of the immense danger involved in pursuing this investigation. Only someone with nothing to lose would dare risk his or her life to collect that bounty. But as Max Mingus delves ever further into the darkness where Mr. Clarinet and the solution to this case dwell, the P.I. realizes that losing one's life might not be the worst price to pay in a land where the dead and dying still stroll the streets.

This is a hefty book, at 560 pages long. However, each word seems to have been considered carefully, evaluated for its overall impact, and then polished until it gives off its own brilliance. Stone's chapters work like short stories or fictional vignettes, satisfying in their individual rights, but precisely woven together around the magnetic figure of Max Mingus. Mr. Clarinet is crime fiction at its artistic and engrossing zenith -- challenging, compelling and offering insights that burrow without fanfare or any warning into the reader's delicate psyche. The only problem I had with this work is that in closing it, I needed to take a long, cold shower, because the tale had left me feeling so damned grungy. The last time I'd experienced that was the day I turned over the final page of Thomas Harris' seminal work, Red Dragon (1981), which introduced cannibalistic killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Need I say more? | February 2006


Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to being a contributing editor at January Magazine, he's also the assistant editor of the e-zine Shots, writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines, and is an associate member (and literary judge) for both the British Crime Writers Association and The International Thriller Writers Inc. Karim is currently working on Black Operations, a violent techno-thriller.