Michael Gruber’s novel Tropic of Night is a thriller; and it’s an absolute… I was going to say cracker, which in England means a firework, and hence, metaphorically, would mean in this case that Tropic of Night is a tremendous read. But I’ve just realised, based on the evidence in the book itself, that in the US the word ‘cracker’ means something else (see any of the several dictionaries of racial slurs).
Anyway, you get the point. This book is one hell of a good read – always assuming that you like thrillers; and even if you don’t – and I strongly recommend it.
Michael Gruber is evidently a very smart man. He has a PhD in marine biology, from the University of Miami, to prove it, but it’s perfectly clear from his book. This is said to be his first novel, but his slightly mysterious and vague background mentions that he has had a number of jobs, most of which included writing, and usually anonymously.
Whatever he did, he has certainly learnt his business. It is highly unusual, frankly, to find a first novel which is this good, and I suspect he has had practice under other names. Either that or he worked with a very good book doctor on the structure and pace of the thing. Which is possible.
Set in the present day, the action takes place in and around Miami. The chief characters are a police homicide man, Jimmy Paz, and a woman in peril, Jane Doe, who is an anthropologist. There are several grisly murders involved, but fortunately the emphasis is not on the gore but on the characters.
Jane Doe is a woman who has not so much kidnapped a child as rescued her from an abusive mother – and has killed the mother in the process. So Jane is on the run. And not only because of the child. Also because her husband is looking for her.
The two cops involved in this book, Jimmy Paz and his partner, are tremendously strong characters, expertly delineated. This is top-rank crime writing, my notes say. Who taught Gruber how to do this? You don’t get to write like this overnight.
The time structure of the book is complicated, and I am not normally in favour of complicated time structures. I prefer a straightforward chronological account. However, if you must have flashbacks, do them as well as this. The viewpoint also switches from first person (Jane) to third (Paz). But again this is smoothly handled.
I don’t know whether you believe in witchcraft, sorcery, black magic, and all that kind of thing. But by golly you will be much more likely to believe in it by the time you’ve read this book.
Even though this is a work of fiction, there are a few points made about witchcraft, shamanism, or whatever you wish to call it, which hold up, I think, in the real world. Jane Doe is an expert on shamanism, and one of her mentors points out to her that spiritual does not necessarily mean nice. Witches, shamans, wise women and other variants of the same are more than likely to have their own agendas. Some of these people may be saints, but saints are about as common among them as saints are among the generals, corporation presidents, and politicians of the non-magic kingdoms. This is worth remembering, I think, before you rush off and join your local Wiccan coven, or whatever.
The story rattles along at a fair old pace, distracting one from the occasional shortcoming. And there is at least one substantial problem with the credibility of the story, if you bother to think about it. It could have been cured with a couple of paragraphs early in the book but it wasn’t. Never mind. Many readers won’t notice.
Not only is this a first-rate thriller, but there is a moment towards the end which is truly affecting. And that’s not so common in this genre.
All in all then, a highly successful beginning.
So good, in fact, that when I’d finished it I looked round for more. And fortunately there is some. I had feared that, having devoted a fearsome amount of time and energy to this book (it couldn’t be written otherwise), Gruber might have decided that the cash generated didn’t justify further books. And he might have given up in order to concentrate on a properly rewarding career. But fortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Second in the Jimmy Paz series is Valley of Bones, which was published in March this year.
Oops. I just got around to searching for a Michael Gruber biography, so that I could point you towards it. And I have found one which someone seems to have cobbled together unofficially, without any help from the man himself. From this I learn that Gruber was born in 1940!
What is more, I find, reading on, that he has ghosted a legal thriller for his cousin, Robert K. Tanenbaum. In fact, reading further, there seem to be fifteen of them!
Well, dammit, I’m not going to go back and change a word of what I’ve written. This late discovery of Gruber's apprenticeship just proves how perceptive I am. Heh heh heh.
His US publisher, by the way, still refers to him as 'one of the most talented thriller writers to debut in many a year.' And the official biography tells us very little. Publishers -- you just can't believe a word they say.