The Darkest Game: Weak Title, Smart Book



By Joseph Schneider

Sourcebooks/Poison Pen Press, 354 pages





We are told not to judge a book by its cover. Still, were I involved with Joseph Schneider’s Tully Jarsdel mystery, I’d change the title. It’s certainly plenty dark, but so many books with “dark” and “darkness” in the title are paint-by-the-numbers offerings.


There’s little that’s formulaic about The Darkest Game. How many detectives do you know who speak Farsi (and is working on his fifth non-English tongue), dropped out of a history Ph.D. program, has two fathers, and can recognize valuable sculptures at a glance? We find Tully teamed with Oscar Morales in what is certainly the odd couple of detectives. Oscar is Tully’s hardboiled opposite, a heavyset Latino family man whose idea of culture is television. He’s also at ease with cop banter, protocol, grab-and-go cuisine, and mugs of beer. Tully was raised by two professors–his biological father is ill with lung cancer–who have never made peace with his decision to become a homicide detective but schooled him in proper grammar, academic research, wine, film, and upper-middle class values. They only thing they haven’t taught him is the circumstances under which his “Baba,” Professor Darius Jahangir, left Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979.  


Tully and Oscar investigate the murder of Dean Burken, a museum conservator also in charge of deaccessioning for the prestigious Huntington Library and Museum in Greater Los Angeles. A lot of Burken’s colleagues disliked him, but that doesn’t make them killers. As Jarsdel applies logic and Morales more conventional police legwork, a prime suspect emerges, no thanks to the Huntington staff which seems far more interested in the institution’s reputation than solving Burken’s murder. One small problem: The suspect also becomes a corpse. On Santa Catalina Island, no less, some 22 miles offshore.


Jarsdel and Morales are sent to Catalina to investigate if there is a link between the two murders. They initially treat it as an expense-account vacation because it’s a proverbial longshot that there’s any connection between Burken’s brutal murder and the suspect’s death. Still, some things are weird in Avalon, the town that contains 3,700 of the island’s population of less than 4,100. The local sheriff, Captain Ken Oria, is cloyingly welcoming and he and his assistant Ledbetter, who plays the bad cop role, are intent on blaming everything that goes wrong locally on a weird bunch called the Natty Boys, a mashup of Pirates of the Caribbean, survivalists, libertarians, and a rough-stuff motorcycle gang. Plus, there’s Pruitt, the island’s resident developer/club owner/restaurant proprietor, who strikes Tully as a pompous jerk.  


This may sound like a variant of a standard mystery cast but if anything, Schneider’s plot suffers from being overly complex. Before the two central deaths are resolved and a third occurs, The Darkest Game delves into things such as the whereabouts of a 19th century diary, the disposition of art works, a perplexing map, a real estate plan, detours into California history, half-truths and lies, a Ruger .38, a musket ball, and a show down.


Schneider overlays the action with the sometimes-tense interactions between Jarsdel and Morales, plus Tully’s quest to unravel his Baba’s life in Iran. The latter could have been saved for another book and somehow woven into a plot. Though it adds depth to Tully’s character, it isn’t germane to an ideas-packed narrative and slows a novel that’s already leisurely paced. Some readers might also think that Schneider drops in too many red herring suspects. It’s not a bad idea to jot down some notes to help keep characters straight, but I’d rather read a book open to charges of being too complicated than one that’s as obvious as a hobo at a black-tie dinner. I did work out the murderer, but Schneider led me places I did not expect to visit.


Thanks to #NetGalley and #PoisonedPenPress for an advance copy of this book.


Rob Weir

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