You probably won't figure out what a "traditional mystery" is by reading EIGHT OF SWORDS. I wholeheartedly recommend this fine debut novel by David Skibbins, but please drop all your assumptions. Because if you try to fit this Berkeley-based mystery into the "cozy" Miss Marple category, your head will explode.
I spent years in Berkeley and loved it there. I loved it often for the weirdness that makes others sneer and mock. As a (pretty much former) political activist, and someone who knows the city fairly well --- at least Warren Ritter's part of the city --- there was a lot to get right. It worked.
Warren Ritter has a Past, unlike most of us whose histories are lowercase. He's getting by as a tarot card reader, setting up most weekdays outside Cody's Books (yay, Cody's!), has major caffeine fixes from the Med, and is keeping a huge secret. One day a teenager from the suburbs comes to his table for a reading. While Warren doesn't exactly buy the whole tarot card thing, sometimes he does seem to channel what he can. Much of it is intuition, but when he sees some danger for Heather, it worries him. In the next few days Heather disappears. She is feared kidnapped, and Warren wonders what he should have done. When Heather's mother, who came to him for help, turns up murdered, Warren takes it personally and decides to figure out exactly what's going on.
It's difficult enough being a guy with a questionable way of earning a living, but Warren also is dealing with some serious mood swings (as in bipolar disorder), a sister --- who he hasn't seen in decades --- brings him some stunning news, and he has a real desire to stay under the radar. "Warren Ritter" isn't even the name he was born with; Warren started all over in the messy, violent Days of Rage and hasn't surfaced since. He's underground, in the open. So he doesn't really need the FBI questioning him about a girl's disappearance. Maybe he just needs to get out of Berkeley and start again.
But there's a lot to like about the city, not the least of which is his friend Sally, a computer hacker, wheelchair user, and proof of the old quote about paranoia being simply heightened awareness. Anyone who is familiar with Berkeley knows about the disabled community there, and I appreciate how the author portrays this woman. In fact I like the way Skibbins depicts a lot of people in this book; they come across as red-blooded and real, as does the city I love.
Liking Warren may be difficult. He is abrasive, impatient, not entirely truthful, and doesn't trust a whole lot of people. He doesn't like cops, though he's good friends with one. He certainly is not a peace-love-granola flower child; in this particular twist on history, Warren Ritter was the fourth "victim" of the Greenwich Village townhouse bombing in March 1970. He is not anti-violence at all.
Still, I get Warren and sort of like the guy. I've known Warrens. It was harder for me to get the whole tarot thing and the whole stock market/day trader thing as a career choice, but that's okay. I would say that in order to enjoy and appreciate this book, it would help to understand who and what he is, and what he was. Like the fictional Warren Ritter, politics matter to me, and Berkeley's way of doing things appeals to me, so I think it was easier for me to appreciate EIGHT OF SWORDS. And I recommend getting a tarot reading on the author's website (http://www.davidskibbins.com). It is a total hoot.
In the middle of the book, Warren Ritter muses "as open to ridicule as this city is, Berkeley still manages to remind the rest of the nation that once there was a time when love was free, when youth felt like they could change the world, and then they did." Believe it.
Reviewed by Reviewed by Andi Shechter (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 21, 2011