Vincent McCaffrey, © 2009, Small Beer Press, 2009 hardcover, first Henry Sullivan mystery
Hound is a new mystery novel, intended to be the first of a series of novels featuring Henry Sullivan, book hound. It’s Vincent McCaffrey’s first novel. McCaffrey is a long-time Boston bookseller.
The city is Boston, the time is the present, the background is bookselling, book collecting, the love of books. The theme is the strengths and weaknesses of relationships between friends, family, lovers.
Henry Sullivan buys and sells books he finds at estate auctions and library sales around Boston, often from the relatives of the recently deceased. He’s in his late thirties, single, and comfortably set in his ways. Like all bookhounds, Henry is always searching for the great find, but usually just getting by, happy enough to be in the pursuit.
The police are investigating the death by strangling of Morgan Johnson, wife of recently deceased book critic, agent and occasional publisher and book collector Heber Johnson. The day before she was murdered, Morgan called Henry to the condominium to make a survey of the books and give an estimate of their value. They are to be donated to Boston University. Henry is the last person – except the murderer – to see her alive. The police suspect him, but don’t have a motive. Henry was involved romantically with Morgan in the past and still cares about her very much. He must know what happened, who has killed her. He asks questions.
While the investigation grinds on, mostly in the background, we follow Henry through his daily life. We see that even in the modern world of violence and unease there are quiet corners where life is more calm, where there’s time for reading, having a beer with friends, and time to investigate the odd details of lives lived on the edges of the book world. We are shown the transformative power of the printed word.
Henry’s friend Albert is a hauler, his business is to clean out rooms, houses, shops after the residents have taken all they want, or if they have died, relatives hire him to clean up and throw out, perhaps sell anything of worth. Albert often calls Henry to dispose of books, and in one old house they find a small room with a trove of books and letters belonging to a woman who lived there nearly a hundred years before. This woman’s life presents a mystery Henry wants to solve: what happened to her? meanwhile the police want to solve the recent murder.
Hound is a leisurely mystery, the action is secondary to the pace of life, the thoughtfulness, the focus on books and things literary. This isn’t fast-paced, action-filled. The story develops at it’s own pace, not to be rushed but rather to be savored. Indeed, the crime-solving is secondary to the portrayal of Henry, the sensitive bibliophile’s efforts to make sense of life. This is a “literary” novel with a mystery inside. It’s full of asides and memories of the character’s youth. The reader needs to relax and enjoy. Initially, I wasn’t sure I was going to like this, but my affection for this book and it’s characters grew as I read, until by the end I was quite satisfied. I look forward to the next in this different, intriguing series.