An aristocratic anthropologist’s field leads out of academia and into African “magic.”
First-novelist Gruber (a minor staffer in the Carter White House and biology Ph.D.) starts out in ever-steamy Miami, where Jane Doe is a rich and semi-spoiled Long Islander who has faked a suicide and gone into hiding as “Dolores,” a mousy medical-records clerk. In her former life, she was an anthropologist who studied under, and had an affair with, a brilliant Frenchman whose expertise in the magic practiced by isolated cultures led her well away from the usual tenure track and off through central Asia to Mali, where she picked up a few magic tricks of her own. Now, she’s hiding from Witt Moore, her husband, an African-American poet and playwright who, on their fateful field trip to Africa, also became steeped in magic—powerful and very, very nasty magic. Jane has recently complicated her fugitive life with the addition of Luz, an abused preschooler, whose mother Jane killed—accidentally—with an especially effective martial arts maneuver. It’s not a good time to be a mother in Miami, where a serial killer is drugging very pregnant women and taking the babies for what looks awfully like human sacrifice. Recognizing the murders as rituals from the lore of the Olo, the Malian tribe she and Witt studied, Jane knows that her husband is nearby and on the prowl and that it will now be necessary for her to practice her own arcane skills. In the meantime, Iago “Jimmy” Paz, a deeply cool Afro-Cuban Miami homicide detective with many, many ladyloves, is trying to sort out the gruesome string of murders as junior man on a team headed by an ultra-religious Florida cracker. And he’s about to meet Jane. What would be overripe overplotting in lesser hands becomes wonderfully credible here, with cleverly drawn characters (Paz and his most excellent mum must surely return), trunkloads of ethno-botanical factoids, and interspersed sections from Jane’s African logbook. The climax is pleasantly apocalyptic.