MAGGIE ESTEP – Flamethrower

Three Rivers Press; trade paperback. First Edition, September 2006.

   This is the third in Maggie Estep’s Ruby Murphy mystery series, and as usual, I came in late. The first two were Hex (Three Rivers, March 2003) and Gargantuan (Three Rivers, July 2004), and while I’ve been meaning to – and I haven’t yet – my intentions are to get my hands on the first two as soon as possible.

   If I thought that Doug Swanson’s Dreamboat was somewhat over-the-top and humorous, and I did, I certainly didn’t see this one coming. Ruby Murphy, who lives as low-key and laid-back a life in Brooklyn and environs (post-Giuliani Manhattan, Queens, Coney Island) as anyone possibly could, begins this episode with a visit to her psychiatrist, Dr. Jody Ray. Ruby has been seeing Jody since the death of someone she cared about – well, Attila, her lover – in a previous book. Unfortunately, not having read the previous book, this did not mean a lot to me, personally, but having a sociopath murder someone close to you right before your eyes, I grant you, maybe a psychiatrist could help.


   And Ruby’s new boyfriend is obsessed by a new object of his affection, his new horse, making this her primary complaint to Jody during this particular visit. Which is summarily interrupted when Ruby discovers, you will not believe this, one of Jody’s husband’s legs in the fish tank outside her office.

   “Oh shit,” Jody said.

   That’s when you know that you have a story that has gone completely off the tracks, and in fact there are no tracks in sight. Where, oh where, you could most reasonably ask, could a story possibly go from here? The quote above came from only page 11 and continues thusly:

   Ruby started wishing she were home, in bed, with the covers pulled over her head. Instead, she was standing there, watching her psychiatrist vomit. Dr. Jody Ray had evidently eaten Chinese food for lunch.

   Eventually, a few twists and turns of the plot later, Ruby is hired (after being mysteriously (and falsely) fired from her job at the Coney Island Sideshow Museum) to find the missing doc, who seems to have a past history that Ruby knew nothing absolutely about, including (page 211) the aspect of the previously mentioned past from which the title of the story arises.

   That the last 12 pages have nothing to do with the mystery end of things tells you something about where the priorities lie in the Ruby Murphy mysteries: not all that so very high. And truth be told, mystery-wise you will have had to have read the other two books to reap all you should from this one. The last chapter is about Ed, the new boyfriend, who became somewhat estranged from Ruby partway through this one, and Ed’s new horse, and Ruby’s new dog Spike.

   That you might not care (that the last 12 pages have nothing to do with the mystery end of things) – and I didn’t – shows you what kind of writer that Maggie Estep is, and how finely etched her characters are. Or, on the other hand, you being you and not me, it might do absolutely nothing of the kind.

— September 2006