I'm regarding this mid-winter chill as a mandate to sit down with a mug of cocoa and crack open the pages of some of those hefty books I've been meaning to read. I haven't revisited "War and Peace" yet, but I have read "Raggedy Man," a debut novel by Bellingham writer Clyde Curley.
This police procedural, set in Portland, Ore., features Detective Sergeant Matthew Toussaint and a cast of characters ranging from homeless drifters to corporate grifters. It is long on character development, plotting, and atmosphere - at 523 pages, it is perhaps overlong. But the author, a retired high school English teacher, clearly loves the power of story and invokes everything from Greek tragedy to American doggerel as he weaves this tale of murder, corruption and family dysfunction.
The story begins on a bleak February morning under a bridge spanning the Willamette River. Toussaint has been called to investigate the strangling death of a young man who appears to have been a vagrant - but who turns out to be Ben Foeller, the black-sheep son of one of Portland's leading families.
The murder occurs just days before Foeller Enterprises is scheduled to make a major announcement in conjunction with a high-profile international trade symposium it is hosting in Portland.
With the help of his new detective-in-training, Missy Owens, Toussaint begins to wade through a perplexing hodgepodge of clues leading from the Foeller family estate in Portland's toniest residential neighborhood to crummy student housing in Cambridge, Mass.
The detectives talk with anarchists, corporate execs, used-car kings, university professors, drug dealers and paranoid derelicts. They have in-house confabs with their law enforcement cohorts and conduct canny jailhouse interviews with suspects - eventually piecing together a picture of the murder victim's crusade to expose the hypocrisy and graft that suffused his family's corporate empire, as they try to figure out who killed him.
Other characters engage in parallel investigations. A newspaper reporter who was one of Ben's friends pokes around for the full story behind his death. And Toussaint's bookstore-proprietor brother, Parker, develops an active interest in the Foeller family background and, with his brother's unlikely acquiescence, plays fast and loose with crucial crime scene evidence.
There is, as one of the peripheral characters in this story notes, "Quite the chain of circumstances around here." And that is a problem - author Curley cultivates too many coincidences in this intricately devised tale.
Another problem is the amount of ink devoted to the discussion of various life philosophies and worldviews. Some of this is compelling stuff, but much of it does little to advance the story and instead adds bulk to a book that is already protracted.
In the plus column, Curley has a real talent for creating atmosphere and developing characters. I'd welcome seeing him develop this first book into a series, but I hope he will seek out some tough-love editing to carve away well-written but extraneous scenes, literary references, and dialogue.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.