HIGH PRIESTESS is the second in a series of novels by David
Skibbins, a tale of murder and madness that stretches back over
decades into the tumultuous 1960s. Warren Ritter, the protagonist
of this intriguing piece, is hardly a likable character, even if
one wholeheartedly embraces his politics of destruction. He
professes to love chaos but complains about the random wind that
disturbs the tarot reading business he so dearly loves to call his
own. He never misses an opportunity to gripe about the system in
general and the American Dream in particular, but has plenty of
free time to wallow in self-pity (and to indulge in his foodie
predilections) due to having fortuitously invested in Microsoft. As
Skibbins himself notes in a responsible afterword in HIGH
PRIESTESS, Ritter is an eccentric and unstable man.
So with all of this baggage, why is there so much to recommend in
HIGH PRIESTESS? The answer, in a word, is Skibbins. He has created
a controversial character who is not going to be universally loved,
or even liked, but nonetheless has built a compelling, readable
world around him. That world is Berkeley, California and the
surrounding environs. Skibbins is not merely passing through here.
He knows this world down to its last nuance, and even if one is not
enamored with the thought of a city being populated by a gang of
arrested personalities, Skibbins will have you yearning to visit
this place at least once in order to walk through Ritter's
Ritter, a radical on the run, is quietly reading tarot fortunes on
the weekend and keeping to the cracks on the sidewalk when the shoe
of the past abruptly collides with the nose of the present. The
shoe, in this case, is Ed Hightower, an old acquaintance of
Ritter's who has another identity himself --- that of the leader of
a Church of Satan. Someone has been killing off their members, and
since the police haven't been much help, Hightower would like
Ritter to conduct an unofficial investigation of his own. Ritter
wants no part of it, but Hightower knows who he really is, and
besides, Hightower has a twin sister, Veronique. Ritter and
Veronique have a history that goes back to the 1960s and ties
directly into the secret that Ritter has been carrying like dark
and dirty baggage for decades. The fact that they were lovers has
something to do not only with Ritter's reluctance but also his
eventual acquiescence with respect to investigating the matter.
That Ritter is already emotionally involved with another doesn't
help matters either.
Nonetheless Ritter, with some cyber-sleuthing help, quickly
identifies three potential suspects, all of whom have sharp axes to
grind with the church and the personality to carry it out. Ritter,
however, suddenly finds himself in the crosshairs when he is
unexpectedly framed for a new murder. His only hope is to quickly
identify the real killer and acquire damning evidence against him.
But how will he do this when he's on the run, hunted not only for
what he didn't do in the present, but also for his involvement in
the sins of his past?
In addition to being a compelling storyteller Skibbins can craft a
heck of a mystery story. There is also, interestingly enough, a
rough and surprisingly fitting justice meted out at the conclusion
of the book, and on more than one front. While Ritter may not be
your favorite detective, it's difficult not to wish him well by
book's end. HIGH PRIESTESS is a complex, compelling and, most
importantly, well-written work.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011