by Maurice Mierau
Harrison Gradwell Slater is an American with a doctorate in musicology and a career as a concert pianist. He is also the author of a respected reference book about Mozart's travels. His shiny resumT exactly duplicates Dr. Matthew Pierce's, the first-person narrator/hero of Slater's debut mystery novel NightMusic.
In the novel, Pierce is a neglected music scholar and pianist who lucks into a document that could be a valuable and previously undiscovered Mozart diary. Pierce's quest to advance his career and authenticate the diary lead him into a creaky intrigue plot surrounded by what the publisher describes as "an entourage of divas and gentry" and "fiendish plots that threaten him and his friends."
But let us not only blame Slater's publisher for risibility. Here is a sampling of dialogue from the novel: "'It's such a big move from ballet to law enforcement,'" Dr. Pierce says to one of the novel's many interchangeable women. And later, talking to a young woman who has just offered herself to the hunky musicologist:
"How can you think of making love at a time like this?"
"Because," she replied calmly, "when you look death in the face, there's nothing like reaffirming life."
There is no indication that this is meant to be funny.
Slater tries to put a patina of very soft porn over his literary mystery. Female characters all have plunging necklines, well-defined calves, and wear no makeup. They have "athletic, supple" figures. In a heated moment we are told that "the area between Nicoletta's naked legs was an oasis of sensual delights." Slater's deathless prose has one woman with "intelligent eyes and understated attractiveness, and a demeanor of 'no frills, no nonsense' softened by a relaxed friendliness." The only specific physical information here is that the woman described actually has eyes. Other than that, she's just another Mozart-loving barbie.
There is much coitus interruptus for Dr. Pierce throughout Slater's fevered narrative, and it (almost) climaxes in a scene where Pierce becomes attracted to the Arch Villain Max that should get the award for Most Implausible Homoerotic Love Scene of Bad Literary Mysteries. But worse is still coming.
Slater is deeply addicted to clichTs at the level of language, plot and character, and seemingly incapable of recognizing them. Characters don't just reveal rage¨ it must be "unadulterated rage." When Pierce has a run-in with bad guys, he tells us his head is "still swimming in the aftermath of an earth-shattering experienceÓ" The plot concerns a nefarious group of criminals who are cornering the market on rare Mozart documents, both real and counterfeit, in order to launder money. Poor Dr. Pierce is caught up in these machinations as he attempts to make something out of his failing academic career. Slater does much sniffing about the cosmic injustice suffered by sessional instructors at universities. Maybe the (near) sex with European classical music hotties makes up for the deprivations of untenured musicologists. Still, it might be easier to sympathize if Pierce didn't whine so much. He ends up falling for an Austrian girl with bad personal hygiene and capacious breasts. She wears no makeup.
This novel would be just a bad genre book if not for its literary pretensions. There are epigraphs from T.S. Eliot, Rushdie (first name misspelled as "Salmon"), Pope, Trollope, etc. Characters casually quote Rilke. Slater's attempts to do pop culture are stilted at best. He has a monk who does an air guitar version of "Sunshine of Your Love" on an "acoustic guitar". Slater fails to explain how that would look different from air guitar on an electric instrument, the kind Clapton actually played.
At one point Slater helpfully translates Eine kleine Nachtmusik into English, and he notes that the piece is "well-known." There are also a few condescending attempts to put down the movie Amadeus, which is surely a work of genius compared to NightMusic. The acknowledgements make depressing reading: there are tributes to an expert in Czech culture, an international consultant in justice, and a former monk. None of these experts can rescue a book that makes John Grisham look like an artist. ˛