Thursday, April 28, 2011

FIRST BOOKS: Gypsy in Amber - Martin Cruz Smith

You may notice in the illustration that the author for this book is Martin Smith. Why then have I put Martin Cruz Smith in the title? Easily explained. They are one and the same. The very first novel by Smith was published a full decade before his breakthrough bestseller Gorky Park which apparently many people think is his first book. It was also honored with a nomination as Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America in 1972 alongside Bill Pronzini's crackling debut The Snatch and the amazing Finding Maubee by A.H.Z. Carr which won the Edgar that year in the Best First category. An auspicious beginning for a writer who would become a leading contender in espionage thrillers. For his first book he took a decidedly different and very unusual topic - the gypsy culture of New Jersey and New York in the 1970s - and created a story that forty years later still seems more original than most of what is being published today.

Being set in the 1970s there are some story elements that date the book to the Viet Nam era - talk of draft dodgers, hippie culture, an extended scene at a rock concert that seems inspired by both Woodstock and medieval Renaissance fairs. This is not at all distracting. It doesn't really seem all that dated either considering that a lot of rock concerts these days have atmospheres that are trying to duplicate the hedonistic love fest coupled with anarchic rebellion that characterized the late 1960s and early 1970s. Similarly, the attitudes towards war in our 21st century are even more radical than ever with the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. These aspects are merely incidental though to the real story which deals heavily with the Romany life in America and the sometimes cut-throat (literally) world of antique selling.

The book opens with a gruesomely detailed, medically specific description of an autopsy. I can't recall a single book from this era that went into such graphic detail. Nowadays it seems commonplace with the numerous pathologist sleuths in contemporary crime fiction and the deluge of similar characters on TV. But I'm sure this scene helped grab the attention of an editor back in 1971. And the book only gets more intriguing as it progresses. A young girl's mutilated and dismembered body is found amid the wreckage of a car and truck that collided outside of New York City. The car, driven by a gypsy, was delivering a batch of antiques to Roman Grey, an antique dealer who often consults with the NYPD. Coincidentally, the truck that hit the car was also delivering a shipment of antiques to the annual Armory show in Manhattan. But where did the body come from? Was it in the truck or the car? And who is she? Grey is brought in as a "cultural consultant." The bigoted police immediately suspect the dead gypsy driver is guilty of some heinous murder and conspiracy.

Orpiment crystal
The book has aspirations to being a detective novel. Roman's knowledge of antiques comes into play in proving the girl was murdered. His careful examination of a shattered highboy reveals bloodstains in the woodgrain of the drawers. At the home of Hoddinot Sloan - a wealthy antique collector whose goods were destroyed in the truck's wreckage - he impresses both Sloan and the reader by proving a gilt paint on a restored piece of furniture is not gold but actually orpiment, a mineral that contains arsenic. He does this by tasting a small amount of the paint. "Amazing. Never saw that done before," says Sloan. "Have you ever been poisoned by any chance?" Roman assures him he never tastes enough for even a minor illness. Orpiment is not mentioned here casually. It plays a wicked part in the final paragraph of the book.

Throughout the investigation Roman meets with his gypsy family and friends. The story focuses on the differences between gypsy culture and the gaja, basically everyone who isn't a gypsy, or as they call themselves -- the Roma. Romany lexicon is liberally sprinkled throughout the text. The reader's gypsy vocabulary is greatly enhanced with words like vilo (old witch), duikkerin (fortune telling), ofisa (a decorated home), bozur (bag of money used in an old switcheroo con game) and jockey which Roman assures us is a gypsy word. I had to research this and according to a 19th century book on the English gypsies by Charles Leland the word is derived from the Scottish gypsy word chuckni which means whip. That put an end to my doubting the veracity of anything having to do with gypsies in the rest of the book. Smith knows his subject.

In pointing out the differences between the Roma and the gaja Smith allows us in on Roman's private thoughts. Roman allows Lt. Isidore to continue believing his stereotypical views of gypsies as deceitful and untrustworthy and wicked seducers of women. Smith dispels all the myths and prejudices of gypsy people through Roman's angry meditations. While the Roma life does entail much stealing, he muses,  it is because gaja are so gullible. The Roma think nothing of taking advantage of this foolishness. The Roma cherish chastity; women spurn men who are sexually promiscuous. To marry a virgin is one of the most honorable acts of a Roma man. There are wedding rituals we discover that celebrate proof of the bride's virginity.

After learning of these distinctions the reader cannot help but compare some of the behavior of the gaja with the Roma. Sloan's daughter, Hillary, cruelly points out to Roman how her father took advantage of a poor woman who had in her possession a William and Mary bureau.  He bought it from the naive woman for $50 and sold it for $3000. He is not far removed from the gypsies. In fact, shortly after hearing this anecdote Roman will discover proof that Sloan is involved in an antique restoration project that is actually a clever antique forgery business. Also, he will discover some documents that will link the dead girl to the Sloan household.

Amid all the ethnological revelations of Roma life, some unusual folklore and legends (furniture in old Salem was broken up to prevent evil spirits from hiding in the property of a condemned witch), there is the story of the crime. Roman is charged with the duty of clearing his dead friend's name. The friend's mother reminds Roman that murder is a gaja crime. No Roma spills blood like this. She makes Roman take a solemn oath to prove that her son did not kill the girl.

But even with the antique business detection, the knowledge of gypsy culture the book fails to deliver as a modern spin on the detective novel. When Roman travels to the rock concert to confront Hillary Sloan with his findings the book takes a sharp turn into thriller territory. All aspects of the traditional detective novel that were so assiduously honored in the beginning of the book are tossed aside.  Instead we are presented with yet another example of the talking killer - a character who will definitely surprise the reader - who confesses everything and behaves like one of the many crazed, arrogant villains that have been found in B movies and mediocre TV for decades. It was for me a disappointing finale.

Roman Grey appeared again in a sequel Canto for a Gypsy in which he is asked to guard a valuable Hungarian relic on display at St. Patrick's Cathedral. After these two books Smith turned to a pseudonym Simon Quinn and wrote a series of adventure thrillers with "The Inquisitor" for a paperback publisher. When his publisher asked him to pick a middle name to differentiate him from another Martin Smith who was publishing fiction he became Martin Cruz Smith. Using this new moniker he wrote a supernatural thriller about Native Americans and hordes of killer bats called Nightwing (made into a movie) and a few movie tie-in paperbacks before creating Arkady Renko in 1981.


  1. Interesting piece. I remember getting both of the Gypsy books from Hartlepool literary and really liking them. I want to read them again, now.

  2. Even if with its faults, I'd read this. It's right up my alley, with the type of arcane information I love.

  3. I am surprised to read that Martin Cruz Smith was once just plain Martin Smith. Hmmm....! Very interesting to read this stuff. Thanks, John.

    I've read two excellent books by Martin Cruz Smith. Two humdingers, actually: DECEMBER 6th and POLAR STAR. (I hope I've remembered the names correctly.) Two fabulous books I recommend VERY highly.

  4. Very interesting review, John (as usual!). Love the little known knowledge about the gypsy culture. Definitely a book to watch out for!