Johannes Cabal: The Detective

On hot summer's days I find myself popping into bookstores with more frequency than usual. Wandering the fiction section checking on 'must' titles if said bookstore is to be considered a proper bookstore.

It used to be whether a store carried Tom McGuane, and if so, did they have 92 in the Shade?' Then, having discovered Bill James' Harpur and Iles novels, how many did they have, and, if asked, could a clerk tell me what movie star did Panicking Ralph Ember resemble?

Recently, my pass/fail is more classic: do they carry all the Tom Ripley's?

Friday, a hot hot day, I strolled into the Barnes & Nobel across from the estimable Bistro Zinc, a scene of recent infamy involving green chartreuse and an innovative method of teaching the 'g' in 'malgre.' Beyond having the complete Ripliad (but no 92' In the Shade) the store was pleasantly cold.

On the New Fiction table I espied an arresting book cover. I paused. I've had good luck buying books by their covers, no matter what personal anguish I have suffered over the years by mistaking covers, in other circumstances, for character. The Meaning of Night, one of the great novels of the decade, was bought thus. Savages, the new Don Winslow novel, the same.

With Winslow an identical happenstance: an escape from the heat and the discovery of a great read/author.

On this afternoon, sweaty and a bit dyspeptic at the recent cupidity of 'friends,' I was taken by the striking, stand out graphics of Johannes Cabal-The Detective. On the cover, in tans, blacks, and reds: a top hated gentleman, a Zeppelin, clouds, a lightning bolt and a question mark. On the back the normal folderol of praise but whimsically listed under, 'Contemptible Compliments'. The inside cover summary mildly interesting, but, the first line of chapter one (like the first line in The Meaning of Night, look it has been voted one of the top ten of the last twenty years) bears repeating:

"The condemned cell stank of cats. There were no rats and no cockroaches, for which Johannes Cabal--a necromancer of some little infamy--was grateful."

A necromancer of some little infamy?

Interested, I turned to a random page. There was a love interest even in a necromantic world...on this page greeting our hero in her dressing gown:

"She herself was wearing a red-and-blue tartan gown over a white winceyette night dress. In purely aesthetic terms, her nighttime apparel made Cabal wonder how the English ever managed to find sufficient motivation to breed."


I reached for my wallet and bought it on the spot. And, read it between Friday night and Sunday afternoon despite wasting two hours of my life on Get Low and its coming attractions. Readers of my columns will know how much I love Robert Duvall, but love, as we all know, cannot survive boredom. The audience, so hopeful given the cast, needed the services of a necromancer by the third reel (are there still reels?) to raise the movie from its deadening script.

But, I digress (nota bene: if you can sneak in for Robert Duvall's soliloquy at the very is worth it)...I sped through Johannes Cabal laughing all the way. The great line found on the random page in the bookstore can be found on every page of the book. It lies to my left and I could do the experiment again...let's 233:

"Cabal raised an eyebrow and smiled a smile at Count Marechal so dry that you couldn't have dragged a molecule of water out of it with fuming sulpheric acid."

I discovered it is actually the second book by the author, Jonathan L. Howard, about Johannes. But, no worries, it is a wonderful read unto itself. Set in a familiar but not precise time, in a familiar but not precise world, told with wry amusement and tongue planted firmly in cheek. It reminded me a bit of the great movie of our age: Zombieland in that it is a firmly realized fantastical world with enough currency to be persuadable. Reading it, I found myself rummaging in the medicine cabinet to see if I had materials on hand to revivify myself in case I miss that fifth step down to the lawn and spear myself on the garden gnome.

Alas, no Dolly Blue at hand, and my fate, if fated, sealed.

I recommend the book highly. It is silly, erudite, and part a playful modern variant of the locked door murder mystery. Johannes is one of the most interesting fictional characters of our still new century, and, as a necromancer or detective, a pleasing diversion from heat, humidity, and awaiting the Blago verdict.

Mr. Howard is a wonderful writer and storyteller. When I went to buy the first Johannes novel today at my local it had been placed in the 'Horror' section...such is the continued historic prejudice toward necromancers. I bought one copy and demanded the other be placed where such a delightful novel deserves to be found: with Tom Ripley, Desmond Iles, and Nicholas Dance.