The Dead Man's Brother
by Roger Zelazny

afterword by Trent Zelazny
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Hard Case Crime: New York, 2009

256 pages

August 2010

  
An international spy-thriller adventure

There's a kind of test question that provides a handful of ideas or objects, then asks, "Which of these is not like the others?" Roger Zelazny's novel The Dead Man's Brother is the odd one out. Zelazny is a master of science fiction, of fantasy, and of that shimmering zone in between those realms. This novel, however, is a thriller with international undercover agents, embezzlers, and revolutionaries. (Apparently to minimize surprises, these elements all can be read on the cover, or deduced from it.) Presumably a genre experiment that failed, the novel was written about 1970, eventually rediscovered among Zelazny's agent's papers, and published in 2009.

How is it different from, and how far does it resemble, other Zelazny work?
  

The Dead Man's Brother is told first-person, in a hard-boiled, tough-guy style. While this certainly is common in the spy-thriller genre, Zelazny overweights his protagonist on the negative side, making him insufficiently likeable to encourage the reader to care much about him. Ovid Wiley is an art dealer and former art thief, dragooned into an investigation for the CIA that leads him to Italy and then to Brazil. We might think that an amateur thrust into such a situation would be more sympathetic than a government professional secret-agent like James Bond, or a private assassin-for-hire like Augustus Mandrell, but this is not the case here.

In contrast, I think most of the other characters are well realized in the space available, and some are interesting and vivid.

The Zelazny erudition is lightly enjoyable in The Dead Man's Brother: classical references almost always casually inserted, clear, and relevant. A very pleasant touch, which for me marks this most clearly as a Zelazny story.

The plot moves quickly except for a slow-down in the middle where Ovid Wiley gets stuck in some tiresome nasty business and the reader perforce is stuck there also rather too long. The chief structural problem is that the unraveling and explanation of all the puzzles are jammed into the end of the novel. The twists and turns all are explained eventually; but without dollops of enlightenment along the way, we begin to feel that the protagonist is more pigheaded than problem-solving. There should be more assurance during a novel that we are progressing toward a denouement.
  

Luck and science fiction

The one real science-fictional concept in the novel is that of luck. At the beginning, there are pointed mentions of Ovid Wiley's statistically phenomenal good fortune in narrowly avoiding accidents, being the sole survivor of a jetliner crash, and so on. But during the main sequence of the plot, this luck scarcely plays a part except in one or two instances. Finally, his accident-surviving is remembered and applied to the narrative briefly at the very end.

Luck has been a subject for fictional speculation plenty of times: for instance, A. E. van Vogt's Weapon Shop series, Larry Niven's Ringworld, and so on. If Zelazny had written a science fiction novel about half again or twice as long, actively developing the concept of luck within the plot, he might well have had a success. An author has to be careful with luck, though: when extended into a kind of superpower, it is harder to demonstrate that the hero faces obstacles with good courage and competence. That's why great-luck often is an attribute of a secondary character: Gladstone Gander among the Disney Ducks, for another instance.
  

The Dead Man's Brother is an entirely readable thriller, with some of the Zelazny flavor; but does not approach the mythic quality of Roger Zelazny's memorable science fiction and fantasy.

  

© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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