|Cover art by Barye Philipps|
Voodoo was a fascination for crime writers from the 1930s through the 1960s. I can think of an entire bookcase full of related detective novels and thrillers, all of which I've read. Let's see how many I can type off the top of my archive of a head: Voodoo by John Esteven, Voodoo'd by Kenneth Perkins, The Obeah Murders by Hulbert Footner (Bahamian spin-off of voodoo), A Grave Must Be Deep by Theodore Roscoe, Conjure Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher (deals more with hoodoo, an offshoot with voodoo roots), numerous short stories from the pulps like "Papa Benjamin" by Cornell Woolrich and "The Voodoo Mystery" by Arthur B. Reeves, and even Live and Let Die, James Bond's own voodoo/occult adventure. I could go on but that would mean leaving my seat and checking the shelves. How about movies? The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Skeleton Key (Hoodoo again), Isle of the Dead, Voodoo Man, Voodoo Woman, Voodoo Dawn, I Walked with a Zombie, White Zombie (yes, the zombie legends have their roots in voodoo and not George Romero). Et cetara, et cetera, and so forth.
I'm not sure any crime writers will touch voodoo anymore as a plot basis. The most recent I can think of that comes close is Michael Gruber's excellent job of incorporating Santeria and black magic in his chilling supernatural thriller Tropic of Night. But that wasn't exactly voodoo. Is it a taboo topic now? Perhaps very un-PC? No matter to me. I'll eagerly seek out as many voodoo thrillers as I can. Dead Man's Walk is one of the best out of all those I listed. It was like a crash course in voodoo. From accurate terminology well defined (no glossary required) to astonishingly detailed descriptions of the rituals, tools and the entire belief system of voudon.
Shell travels to Verde Island to investigate the suspicious death of George Knowles. His business partner, John Farrow, disagrees with local authorities that Knowles died of natural causes. It may have something to do with the death of a local boy only days earlier. Farrow is convinced someone is trying to destroy his business especially since his employees have quit the place en masse for fear that the hotel is cursed. Oddly enough, the guests have decided to take over and fill in as maids, bartenders, kitchen help and what have you. Farrow needs Shell to get to the bottom of the mysterious deaths before his hotel business completely falls apart.
Later he joins forces with local girl Alexandria Ducharme (Dria for short) who will be his tutor in Voodoo 101. It's clear to Shell that he will need a rudimentary understanding of the local beliefs if he is going to outwit the bad guys who are taking advantage of a superstitious population and killing anyone who gets in their way. His imaginative and purely American revenge on the local voodoo bad guy takes the form of an elaborate magic show employing balloons, voodoo dolls, a booby-trapped tree, a very large and powerful magnet, and generous amounts of fake blood. He outwits and out-cons the con artist - a forbidding voodoo priest who turns out to be powerless compared to Shell's ingenuity. It's the best sequence in a very entertaining crime novel.
I like Shell's oddball sense of humor and Prather's eccentric way of conveying it. Here's a good example from late in the book:
That was she. My gal. The gal I'd swept off her feet. Ah, you Romeo, you, I thought. Wherefore art thou, Romeo? Casanova was a piker. Just wiggle your little finger and they land all over you. Clunk! I've got to quit believing everything these babes tell me. Maybe I'd better give up babes entirely. No, I'd rather die.I got you, babe. He also calls women "tomatoes."
And his troubles and mishaps and set-backs?
"This is some pickle, eh?"I have to dig up the rest of my Shell Scott books. I've only found Kill Him Twice and Three's a Shroud. I was positive I had more than that. In any case, I know I'll be adding to my Shell Scott collection on a regular basis.This is some damn good crime writing.
"…an indication of the depth of the pickle I was in."