Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Mesmerist Casts an Intriguing Spell

Note: Some of you may recall that Joseph D'Agnese, the author of this title, participated in Advent Ghosts: 2012. You may also remember that ISLF doesn't accept free copies of books, nor do I necessarily hearken to review requests. I procure all of my reading at my own expense and review according to my own pleasure. Okay, enough of that.

Back in 2008, critic Laura Miller noted in The Wall Street Journal how “pulp genres interbreed as wantonly as alley cats.” She said it in the context of the then-new (and now terribly oversaturated) vampire/werewolf/demon/anything-remotely-paranormal romance. It also applies, though, to almost any sort of genre story. All sorts of interesting tastes arise when diverse elements get thrown into the pot. But what results do you get after tossing in disparate trope after trope -- a tasty goulash or a muddled mess? That was exactly the question I started asking myself within the first fifty pages of Joseph D'Agnese's The Mesmerist.

NYPD detective Tod Fisher knew the deaths weren't due to natural causes. Sure, the three victims had died of heart attacks (which normally precludes murder), but something simply seemed wrong. For one thing, they all appeared to have aged decades in an instant, wrinkles shriveling twenty-year-old skin and gray hairs frosting once-dark heads. And another thing: Someone had left tarot cards by their bodies. Also, each incident had occurred eight days after the prior. It doesn't smell right to Fisher, and that's why he's sought out the help of Ishamel Soul, an FBI agent who specializes in paranormal investigations. Possessing an office festooned with paranormal paraphernalia and a willingness to entertain the most obscure supernatural explanations, Soul isn't your average agent -- and that's good. Though Fisher's as open-minded as anyone else in the 1970s, he can't begin to fathom the world into which he will soon descend. A world where the gifted can pick information from your head the way a magnet draws iron filings out of a stack of sawdust. A world where a blind man sees music and a child whore can stop the breath in your lungs just like that. A world where a madman waits to still your heart and steal your years with nothing more than a thought.

Like a fractionally tamed St. Bernard who has just spotted an arthritic tabby, The Mesmerist bounds all over the place. It begins a bit like Jim Butcher's Stormfront, with the whole world-within-a-world theme of urban fantasy. Then it shifts to the psychic investigations of Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man before plunging readers quite suddenly into the World War 2-era telekinetic manipulations of Dan Simmons' Carrion Comfort. What's more, a major twist near the ending recalls The Prestige (film version more than Christopher Priest's original book). The question is whether or not it all works. Yes, there are moments where subplots get a little tangled, and at times I had to turn here and there to recall the significance of a particular character. But I found it flat-out fun in the end, a book that artfully blends ambition and enjoyment, one well-written that remains entertaining throughout. The Mesmerist casts an intriguing spell.

(Picture: CC 2011 by alvaro tapia hidalgo)

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