The Rockaway Irregular
With the ongoing national saga of healthcare reform and our president's recent public missteps over the Henry Louis Gates affair, the fiscal implosion in California and our own slow-moving train wreck up in Albany, where a roster of perennial incumbents have been backstabbing one another over control of a State Senate no one outside Albany really cares about, there is a plethora of subjects available for comment these days. New York's accidental governor, David Paterson, who succeeded former Governor, and bon vivant man about town, Eliot Spitzer, has so far failed to hold back our spendthrift legislators as they race to find new ways to grow New York's deficit in their mad rush to ensure California doesn't beat us into receivership. With no adult in charge up in Albany, and a listing economy on both the state and national levels, there's almost an embarrassment of riches for the hopeful commentator.
And it doesn't stop there. On the local front, Gateway's crumbling concrete "boardwalks" and rusted out guard rails, oxidized down to their jagged and rotting stumps in once historic Riis Park, are poignant testimony to the inertia and incompetence of government bureaucrats. On our own local streets, recently implemented road rules shoving bike riders and automobiles onto the same narrow, crowded streets with drivers no longer able to legally pass other vehicles on most roads so that you have to creep along behind the slowest guy, who invariably turns out to be the one right in front of you, the lesson is clear. Big, busybody government is back. My wife recently found herself in bumper to bumper traffic heading east toward Far Rockaway in the middle of the morning - rush hour comes to Rockaway courtesy of Mike Bloomberg and his ever more intrusive city agencies.
With so much to write about, where to start? In a nod to the lazy days of summer, let's skip the usual kvetching (I know, I know, what's Rockaway good for if we can't kvetch a bit?) and turn back, however briefly, to the arts. Last summer I promised some of our visiting authors at the '08 Literary Arts Festival that I'd read and review some of their books. So here's another installment in my continuing effort to keep my word: As part of the Queens Noir fiction panel at that festival, mystery writer Alan Gordon (who moonlights as an attorney for Legal Aid) held forth on the joys of noirish writing. But Gordon, it turns out, is also the author of other kinds of mysteries, including a fascinating historical mystery series about a fictional secret society called the Fools Guild. Modeled on the medieval guilds of old, guild members operate as a kind of costumed CIA, undercover operatives moving from town to town, disguised as itinerant entertainers, either jester or minstrel, wangling access into the forbidden castles, monasteries and palaces of their day by plying their festive stock and trade.
I picked up the sixth book in Alan Gordon's Fools Guild series, The Lark's Lament, when Gordon spoke to fellow festival goers here in Rockaway, and was delighted with what I found. The story follows a certain Theophilos the Fool (it's only a guild name since his real one's a trade secret) as he travels to an abbey in southern France with his wife and fellow "fool" Claudia (unlike the rest of the medieval world, the Fools Guild turns out to be an equal opportunity employer), their young apprentice Helga, and the couple's baby daughter, Portia, (it's a family affair and Portia's in training, too) in order to recruit a local abbot to aid the Guild as it tries to outmaneuver an unfriendly pope. The abbot, himself a former troubadour and guild member who once called himself Folquet, now goes by the name of Folc. But murder intervenes (as it will in such tales), and the three fools abruptly find themselves recruited by Abbot Folc to solve the mystery of a cryptic message scrawled on the librarium wall in the victim's own blood - or lose their only chance to recruit Folc to their cause.
The search for the meaning of the bloody words left on the wall takes our fools over the mountains to a local women's religious order, then to Marseilles on the southern coast of France and finally to the growing merchant town of Montpellier. As our heroes endure the rigors of the road and manage to survive one another's clever oneliners and rapid fire double entendres, the plot speedily thickens. In Marseilles our hero and heroines find a fellow fool to help them (the society has agents secreted everywhere!) and in Montpellier they smoke out another, less cooperative, Guild member as things finally come to a head with the discovery of a noble family's dirty secrets, yet another murder, and the revelation of the identity of the mysterious "Lady Lark" referenced in the original cryptic message scrawled in blood in Folc's abbey.
Gordon's writing is tight and fastpaced throughout and the mystery is engaging, as is the endless banter between the fools and just about everyone they run up against. I found the quick changes in points of view from chapter to chapter a little disorienting, since the voices all sound much the same (even the simple blacksmith in Montpellier gives as good as he gets when exchanging one-liners with the fools!), but the elegance and wit of Gordon's prose carried the day for me. Gordon succeeds in creating a credible facsimile of the medieval world in spite of the somewhat modern sensibility he imparts to some of his key players, the elements of his tale melding seamlessly together to create a completely convincing mystery and a medieval Europe as it might have been.
The author's final end note is also cleverly done and puts his tale in amusing perspective. I especially appreciated the faux scholarly references and his obvious familiarity with old French and Latin, lending an air of gravitas to the tale. Though not a lover of mysteries in general, I'm a convert to Gordon's world of fools, minstrels, spies and clerical rogues. The whole series, including The Jester Leaps In and continuing through Death in the Venetian Quarter (both published in 2002), Widow of Jerusalem (2003), An Antic Disposition (2004), Thirteenth Night (2004) and The Moneylender of Toulouse (2008), can be found on amazon.com or at your local bookstore (if there are any of those left). At the least, reading a few of the books in this series may distract you, if only briefly, from the spectacle of our own fools up in Albany and in Washington, D.C. as they vie with one another to spend money we don't have so they can tax it when we do. rockirreg @ aol.com.