JANE HADDAM – Cheating at Solitaire.  St. Martin’s, paperback reprint; 1st printing, April 2009. Hardcover edition: St. Martin’s, April 2008

JANE HADDAM Cheating at Solitaire

   Upstairs as I’m typing this, I don’t have access to the Internet, so I don’t know how many books Jane Haddam has written in her series of ex-FBI agent Gregor Demarkian’s cases, but there have been quite a few of them. (According to Amazon.com, as I’ve discovered later, this is the 22nd.)

   I wish that I’ve read more of them — only one before this one — and that’s because of the question I’ve been trying to answer. I’m not trying to diminish Demarkian’s popularity by a single whit, but the strange thing is that I can’t quite explain why it is that he’s had the career he has.

   Are the books what are commonly referred to in the vernacular as cozies? Not really, although some of early parts of this particular adventure takes place in Demarkian’s boyhood Armenian neighborhood in Philadelphia (Cavanaugh Street) where his marriage to his long-time lover Bennis Hannaford is soon to take place. Check this off. Roots are important. Long time friends are important.

   But neither of the latter two items have anything to do with the case that Demarkian is called in on in Cheating at Solitaire, a fact for which I (admittedly) felt uncomfortably grateful, as the atmosphere felt a little too close for me. I suspect, however, that long time fans of the series might wish there were more!

   Dead is one of the crew of a film being made in Margaret’s Harbor, found shot to death in his car in a New England style Nor’easter on New Year’s Eve. The local police force, and very few in number, have chosen the most likely suspect, not realizing that (in Demarkian’s quick analysis of the case) simply do not add up. The bullet has not been found where it should be, and where the victim’s blood is found on the person arrested does not match the local authorities’ version of the events. (See page 135.)

   You might therefore check off great detective work as being part of the appeal, but Demarkian’s rebuttal of the prosecution’s facts is far from a work of genius. Anyone willing to let the facts guide the theory, rather than the other way around, could have done as well.

   Well before the end of the tale Demarkian also suggests that he knows who did it, too the surprise and amazement of all, but he later backs off suggesting that the he only knows the kind of person capable of doing it. By the story’s end, nor in the final wrapup, is his earlier claim mentioned.

   This may sound as though I was greatly disappointed in the mystery and how it develops and in the solution. No, not really. Only mildly. I do think, however, that Demarkian’s detective skills are more talked about than shown.

JANE HADDAM Cheating at Solitaire

   I have not mentioned, though, what this book is really about. In paperback the book is 388 pages long, which is far too long for the small amount of detective work that’s involved to be a major reason for its popularity.

   What the book is really about is a certain disdain for the existence of popular culture creatures such as Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith and Brittany Spears. Three such women, key players in this book — two from out of town, one local and not exempt from the author’s indictment — reflect the same shallow values, at least outwardly. (A surprise or two may be in store here.)

   But by shallow values, I mean vapid, stupid behavior, including such actions as getting drunk in local bars and running about town in skimpy clothing and a noticeable lack of underwear. Not that they’re the only culprits and targets of Jane Haddam’s wrath. This book also includes one of the most vicious attacks by a gang of paparazzi on an extremely vulnerable celebrity that you will read anywhere, a statement that’s almost guaranteed.

   Time and time again the book stops while some rather effective moralizing takes place, sometimes in the minds of the players, sometimes as a general authorial voice. Such commentary on the modern world, if not modern society as a whole — or should that be the other way around? — is difficult to disagree with, but after a while it becomes as overbearing as the close-knit neighborhood that produced Gregor Demarkian into the world, along with his values.

   But do check off values. As overdone as the promotion may be, values are the key to Cheating at Soltaire — hometown values, small town values, I don’t believe it matters either way. Maybe they’re even universal values and and maybe this is why readers keep coming back for more.