I love the small presses. Don't get me wrong --- I love the large ones too. I'm not one of the pointyheads that decry something as evil just because it's big, or even huge. It's just that the small presses are the mortar that fill in the spaces between the large bricks that are the Random Houses, the Simon & Schusters, and the like. One of the better of the little guys is an outfit called Avocet Press, which has a small, kind of picky but, ultimately, quality catalogue of books that will intrigue just about anyone.
One of the interesting things about Avocet is that they have a very small but slowly growing mystery imprint, the wonderfully titled Memento Mori. And it is Memento Mori that brings us the absolutely wonderful AN UNCERTAIN CURRENCY by Clyde Linwood Sawyer, Jr. and Frances Witlin.
AN UNCERTAIN CURRENCY is a classic whodunit, closer to Agatha Christie than Jeffery Deaver. The reader is introduced to Mario Castigliani, who has come to the sleepy town of Floraville, Georgia for a "performance." Castigliani is a mind reader --- yes, really. But his gift, talent, or whatever you wish to call it, is intermittent; he must rely on his wit when his gift fails him. Castigliani has made an occasionally comfortable living as a performer and occasional assistant to local police departments in solving baffling cases. He arrives in Floraville just as an epidemic appears to be commencing --- some prominent citizens of the city are hanging themselves, and the deaths appear to be suicides. The chief of police isn't so sure about this and enlists Castigliani's aid in determining what is going on in his city. Floraville, while quiet and peaceful on the surface, has quite a bit going on under the covers, if you will. Castigliani, whose powers fade in and out at will, knows that murder is being done. What he does not know is whether he will be able to discern the identity of the perpetrator.
AN UNCERTAIN CURRENCY is an intriguing, frequently brilliant first novel. It is complicated somewhat by the fact that the authors, on occasion, suffer from a reach that exceeds their grasp. The introduction of characters is at times almost overwhelming. And the interludes into Castigliani's background, while well-written and extremely important to the development of the character, are sometimes intrusive and interruptive of the flow of an otherwise excellent narrative. Ultimately, the reader isn't going to care, for Castigliani is an immensely likable protagonist who wrestles his own demons while helping others with theirs. I'm hoping for more of him --- and for many more works of any sort from Sawyer and Witlin.