Into Michael Gruber’s Shamanistic Murders
In our reality magic is something which exists solely in the realms of metaphor and fantasy. For the majority of people, most phenomenon are either explicable through scientific means or are awaiting their inevitable logical decryption. On the other hand, there are people who have carried down traditions, practices and beliefs from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, and for some of them what we call magic is a real thing. One can easily find rituals and incantations of all natures, and thus it’s not wonder this enigmatic and romanticized aspect has found its way into crime fiction. Ritualistic serial killings are, at this point I believe, a classic staple of the detective genre, and in his novel titled Tropic of Night, Michael Gruber tried to leave his mark on the field.
The premise of the story is rather simple. On one hand, we have the Cuban-American detective Jimmy Paz whose heritage makes him a bit of a link between the two cultures, giving him a unique sense of understanding of them both. Lately, Miami has been held firmly in the grasp of fear as a series of ritualistic killings have taken place, with the police seemingly none the wiser as to who could have done it. With the order of the city and even more lives on the line, Jimmy does his best to dig deep and find the truth buried beneath all the rot. On the other hand, we have a Jane Doe, living in secrecy with everyone believing her to be dead… probably. As it happens, she was once an anthropologist and an expert on shamanism, and she knows about the truth Jimmy is trying to uncover. As their paths slowly converge towards each other, it becomes clear a giant heart of darkness is beating beneath the city streets, and will claim countless more victims unless it’s stopped.
A Fusion of Impossible Elements
Michael Gruber had spent his literary career as a ghost writer for Robert K. Tenenbaum until he published this novel in 2003, launching his own profession as an author. It certainly shows that despite being his first published novel, it’s definitely written by an experienced hand guided with an ambitious mind. This is what I would refer to as one of those books mixing and mashing so many genres it almost comes to defy classification in the end.
There are elements of philosophy, police procedural, thriller, mystery and mysticism, as well as explorations of materialism, cosmology, ontology, European occultism, anthropology, and probably a whole host of other topics I’m forgetting to mention. In other words, this isn’t a novel which seeks to remain within the narrow confines of the pre-established conventions, but rather tries to add some fresh air into a genre which may be starting to grow a little stale on the whole.
While most authors wouldn’t really be able to make all of these elements stick together in a cohesive manner to form a comprehensible story, Michael Gruber shows his writing aptitude and somehow manages to make it all work. While it is true there are times when it feels like the story is trailing off a bit, on the whole I would say the varying elements were included in a natural way as the story advanced onwards and were seldom there for mere padding. As a matter of fact, this partially turns the novel into an educative character study on the stage of intersecting cultures and mystical practices. Additionally, this helps lighten up the atmosphere in contrast with the brutal murders and overall makes the novel feel like a thrilling and pleasant adventure.
As far as the actual plot itself goes, the first thing I’d like to address is the fact that we get to see it all through three separate narratives, blending and contrasting points of view to form a much more original picture than what could have been. Each and every one of our narrators is rich in character and detail, depicted with extreme clarity and bearing many layers of fascination to unfold. As they advance throughout the story we witness their visible growth as people and watch them change the world around them, and in return be changed by it. Michael Gruber did a fantastic job at getting me invested in each of the characters and the fates awaiting them in the end.
Weaving three separate narratives into something presentable capable of withstanding scrutiny is a much taller order than it seems, which is why I believe Gruber deserves his fair share of praise for pulling it off. All the details are consistent, and rather than simply showing different sides of the same story, each of the narratives serves to complement the other two. We feel them being intertwined from the very start, and even though it’s not always exactly apparent how the various elements might come into play, they do so in an orderly manner. As a result, we have a plot which consistently moves forward, keeps our curiosity piqued and remains unpredictable until the very end, which I found did justice not only to the quality of the writing which preceded it, but also the genre as a whole.
The Final Verdict
To draw curtains on this review, Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber is a solid, original and multifaceted detective thriller, taking the ages-old trope of ritualistic serial killings and adding numerous elements to breathe originality into it. It has an intriguing and rock-solid mystery, characters you can actually care for, as well as plenty of mystical and philosophical elements for you to mull over. If you enjoy detective novels, I strongly believe you should give this one a try.
Michael Gruber is an American author living in Seattle with a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Miami. He has gone through a number of careers before settling on writer, including marine biologist and policy advisor for the Jimmy Carter White House. In addition to ghostwriting a large number of Robert K. Tanenbaum’s novels, such as Enemy Within and True Justice, he has published a number of his own acclaimed works including The Book of Air and Shadows and The Return.