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The eighth in the Benjamin Justice series is a page-turner, but I finished the novel vaguely unsatisfied. The first five books in the series, Blind Eye in particular, rank among my favorite all-time mysteries. (Three large chunks from the first book, Simple Justice, introduced as excerpts from Ben’s newly published autobiography, recalled for me the pleasures of that first discovery.) The two “Prozac-fueled” cozies that followed left me feeling that an imposter had taken over Justice’s body. Now, once again much of the old testosterone-driven Justice is back. Literally, since he’s taking injections to counter some of the effects of his AIDS-cocktail of medications. But instead of the visceral identification that I experienced from Ben’s earlier self-destructive behavior, this time I felt irritation at his lack of trust and of control.
Once again the author is experimenting with plot structure. The more conventional murder mystery is delayed until near the end of the book, and by then the reader knows who the murderer is. Most of the early chapters deal with two figures with links to Ben’s college past, who make their appearance as the result of the publication of his autobiography. One is a stalker with a seemingly preternatural ability to show up each time Ben steps out. Fairly early on, he is identified as Jason Holt, a pathological freak who sends a whole series of threatening postcards to Ben and of poisonous dispatches and videos to critics and web sources. Lance, the other figure, is an ex-Marine skinhead who seems to seek some strange kind of rapport with Ben, only to be greeted by a violent outburst beyond the bounds of what their first encounter seems to merit. Also woven into the story is a romance, a relationship between Ben and Ismael Aragon, marked by both joy and a sense of desperation on Ben’s part.
As always with Benjamin Justice, there are a series of betrayals, this time both by and against him. His wonderful landlords are showing their age. Alex Templeton is moving on, apparently out of Ben’s life for good. The novel takes place in West Hollywood between June and September 2008 and notes the political tensions created by Proposition 8, a most incredible tour de force on the part of the author and his publisher considering that the book was available at the beginning of December. Wilson ends with a tentative promise for Ben’s potential redemption, but I left the novel wondering whether Ben, at age fifty, can be salvaged. There is this tribute to be paid a JMW novel: one cannot feel indifference about his characters.