Book Review of Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber
I cracked open Tropic of Night expecting a murder mystery, and instead found a literary novel. Not only does this debut novel by Michael Gruber contains deeper characterizations than you might find in a typical mystery, but it also addresses issues of race, religion, perception of reality, and love.
While this novel is filled with the suspense of a mystery, it is also packed with ideas and observations that draw the mind down different avenues of thought. This is a delightful read for those who like their mysteries intelligent, educational, and thought-provoking.
The protagonist of this novel is Jane Doe and the novel starts as bleak as her soul. Jane is in hiding, from life and from her husband, in the lower-middle class area of Miami. The story begins with Jane, calling herself Delores from the identity she stole from a dead nun, rescuing a small girl from an abusive mother and accidentally killing the woman in the process.
Jane adopts the girl, named Luz, and begins to raise her as her own. This is the first hopeful act for Jane in the years since she faked her suicide and went on the lam. She works a menial job at the local hospital, does her best to make herself unattractive and avoid eye contact or any meaningful interaction with other people.
At the same time, a grisly murder takes place in the black section of the city. A pregnant woman near full term is murdered, some of her internal organs and her fetus are removed, the baby’s skull is cracked open and the brain removed. The murderer also appeared to have come and gone without being seen, and the woman was surgically eviscerated without a struggle.
One of the detectives assigned to the case is Jimmy Paz, a mulatto of Cuban descent who doesn’t have many friends on the police force. His partner is Cletis Barlow, a religious, Bible-quoting, white officer of redneck parentage.
Paz and Barlow work well together because they put their personal feelings aside and carry a professional respect for each other. When Jane Doe learns of the murder of the pregnant woman and baby, she knows immediately that her husband is in town and has committed the crime. She expects that he’ll soon come looking for her.
Jane comes from a privileged background. The Doe family is old moneyand has been ensconced on Long Island for centuries. Her family and money have bailed her out of predicaments in her past, and lawyers, archbishops, and politicians can be called to the family’s aid at almost a moment’s notice. Jane is an anthropologist with a specialty in shamanism.
After college, she had followed an older lover, a famous French anthropologist, to Siberia to live with the Chenka tribe who practice a powerful magic. It was an experience that shattered Jane mentally. She was unable to reconcile her scientific detachment and Western reasoning with visions and events she couldn’t pass off as just drug-induced hallucinations.
Upon returning to the states, she meets and marries a rising black poet, DeWitt Moore. Feeling stifled at being just a wife to someone else’s career, she jumps at the chance to spend a year in West Africa doing anthropological research. She takes DeWitt with her so he can return to his African roots and have something to draw on in the completion of his epic poem about being black in America.
The novel is told through three storylines. The first is Jane as Delores, hiding out in Miami, bonding with Luz, and being aware that DeWitt is looking for her. She knows he has committed the murder as part of an ancient African sorcery ritual that hasn’t been performed in centuries, the first of four murders of pregnant women he must perform within 16 days to generate an immense power that just might be unstoppable. DeWitt returned from Africa trained in the dark arts of ancient sorcery and determined to be a black Hitler wreaking revenge on white America.
The second storyline is told through Jane’s journals, telling of her family life on Long Island and her experiences in Siberia and Africa. This is the device used to tell Jane’s backstory, her relationship with her family members, particularly the father with whom she was very close and the mother with whom she was not.
The magic she encountered in Siberia and that DeWitt learned in Africa had already created a tragedy within her family, and left her with the knowledge that she is likely the only person who can confront and possibly stop her husband.
The third storyline is that of Jimmy Paz investigating the murder and his life outside the police force. An item left at the scene of the murder and the bizarre chemicals found within the victim’s body leads Paz to suspect that someone who’s had contact with West African cultures must be involved. He doesn’t believe in magic or sorcery, and searches for reasonable explanations for unexplainable clues and events.
The Cuban religion of Santeria, a descendant of the West African Yoruba religion, appears to be involved, or at least someone with knowledge of it might be leading a cult of people to commit the crime for some farfetched religious reason. Paz doesn’t have much of a social life. He often spends evenings working at his mother’s Cuban restaurant, or visiting one of the several white women he sees on a casual, but sexually active, basis. His investigation draws him deeper into ideas he can’t bring himself to believe, while his personal life begins to fall apart around him.
The murder of a second fetus and pregnant woman, a rich, well-connected white woman, kicks the investigation into high gear and brings incredible pressure from the politicians and police brass for Paz and Barlow to solve the crime as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Jane begins to shed her Delores identity and delves into her own sorcery training in an attempt to protect herself from her husband and avoid falling victim to his power.
As the story of Jane and DeWitt in Africa is told through her diaries, the investigation leads down alleys the police can’t comprehend. Jane prepares to protect herself and her newfound daughter, the climax builds in the heat, both literal and figurative, of Africa and Miami, and the confrontation between Jane, DeWitt, and Paz becomes inevitable.
The strength of this novel comes from its sharply drawn characters. While the story is only told from the perspectives of Jane and Paz, many of the minor characters spring to life off the page through their interactions with them. Jane’s parents, Cletis Barlow, Paz’s mother, and others are easy to see in the mind’s eye and they add the texture necessary to anchor a story steeped in sorcery and alternative views of science.
Michael Gruber’s combination of academic explanations of magic and Jane’s experiences with sorcery work seamlessly into the story. Where the line is drawn between fact and fiction in this fanciful story is hard to ascertain at times, a testament to the author’s skill at drawing us into the story.
There are a few weaknesses to this novel. DeWitt Moore before the trip to Africa is a fully-fleshed out character, but the reasons for the change that overcomes him in Africa don’t ring with any resonance. As he emerges as the evildoer in the end of the novel, he’s just a shell of a man propelled by anger. Any soul left to his character is gone, leaving him less interesting and more of a plot device. The novel also drags a bit in the middle as more time is spent on telling Jane’s backstory and the story in present time moves at a slow pace.
As the novel progresses, it becomes evident that the characters are detached from society, each choosing a particular place in the social structure based on their economic status, profession, race, or ethnicity. Class distinctions are often made on the different shades of the color of the skin or the country of origin. Typical is a conversation where Jane (as Delores) shares a lunch at work with two women who are naturalized immigrants from Barbados.
And so on, in that musical voice. I bob my head, grin, and make excuses. I like them both and wish often that I were again myself so that we could be friends. I eat my yogurt slowly, willing my stomach to accept its bland nourishment. Cleo and Lulu are chattering about some neighborhood event. They live in the Grove, too, in the large island community there.
They are always complaining about the Bahamians and Jamaicans, and explaining to each other and to me why these are both lesser breeds without the law. And, my word, the Haitians! I allow their talk to soothe me, like the sound of the brook, without much attention to content. Nor is it much expected.
Michael Gruber shows how this assertion of identity, whether self-imposed or not, leads to isolation. Jane is detached from her family and the rest of society, as is Paz from his mother and his colleagues on the police force. It is this refusal to accept others from outside each person’s identity group, and in the case of sorcery, ideas from outside their own experiences or mindset, that prevents them from accepting all that is offered within their community, or even their humanity. It is this opening of their hearts to others and their minds to new ideas that make them grow.
Tropic of Night casts its own spell, one that worms into your mind with its stories of sorcery and ancient gods, and burns your soul with the heat of its story. Beneath it all, though, is a story of overcoming self-imposed isolation and accepting what the world has to offer, and most of all, the love that is offered but often spurned.
The book jacket says that Michael Gruber has been writing for years, usually anonymously. Whatever that was, it has allowed him to polish his craft to deliver an astonishing debut novel. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.