The true measurements of Solomon’s molten sea, how to trick a ballistics expert and the murder of a prominent art dealer are just some of the puzzles testing Matt Matthias’s mental prowess in Belloc’s debut mystery.
The novel opens with undercover officer Jon Chin posing as an art dealer in a black-market sting operation with the help of Rice University professor Henry Gonzales. As Jon infiltrates a party for the socialites of Houston’s art scene, someone fatally shoots the party’s host, Bill Howell, and two young men in a cast-metal hot tub. Investigating a form of Hebrew inlaid into the hot tub, Jon learns of its connection with Solomon’s Molten Sea of biblical lore. Meanwhile, homicide Sgt. Henderson discovers the bullets that killed Howell came from a .223-caliber rifle, one belonging to Henry Gonzales. Believing Gonzales to be innocent and the murder linked to Howell’s model of the molten sea, Jon enlists the help of Matt Matthias, problem-solver extraordinaire. Intrigued, the windmills in Matt’s head begin spinning, and they won’t “stop until he [has] finally figured it out.” An impressive range of subjects appears here: Cubits, linguistics, subsonic bullet speeds and the metallurgy of ancient brass all fit within the mystery. That Matt’s not a know-it-all-instantly investigator heightens the enjoyment. Instead, he’s a library investigator, studying the subjects necessary to solve the puzzles. In turn, the readers learn with Matt, and these research sessions are the novel’s highlight. They do come with one caveat: The erudition can extend beyond the story’s purview, resulting in information exhibitionism at times. But while Matt’s method entertains, he’s a wholly unlikable protagonist. He regularly objectifies women in long, voyeuristic passages that describe their bodies in lurid detail. “If there were no concealed flaws, she’d be a perfect specimen” is the only example fit to print. An unsuccessful attempt to counterbalance the character’s sexism comes far too late in the novel.
Misogyny detracts from an otherwise enjoyable mystery.