I confess I’m not a fan of horoscopes or astrology. People are good enough at putting unpredictable, often contradictory humans into stable, characteristic-based groups without needing to do so based on their birth dates, using the mystique of the celestial canopy as justification. Maybe I feel this way because I’m a Scorpio.
Nonetheless, in fiction, using astrology as an aid in crime-fighting makes for a neat twist on the mystery that incorporates a supernatural element. This is exactly what happens in Mitchell Scott Lewis’s Murder in the 11th House (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011), making its protagonist, David Lowell, a fresh and distinctive member of the occult detective legacy.
To be clear, David Lowell belongs to that gang of occult detectives who use their otherworldly abilities — usually, some form of divination — to solve crimes that are very much of the Earth. Lowell is in the tradition of Mr. Burton from Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter (1866), a detective who leans on his daughter’s clairvoyant trances and his own intuitive awareness to solve cases, or L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace’s Diana Marburg (1902), who uses palm-reading to identify criminals. Another way to think of Lowell is as a much less undead Liv Moore from TV’s I Zombie, whose sleuthing involves unveiling clues by eating the brains of dead witnesses and reliving their experiences. I call such characters “clairvoyant-detectives,” knowing it’s an imprecise term. While most are indeed outright clairvoyant, these detectives use a variety of methods to glean knowledge that most others cannot.
Despite their various occult techniques of crime-solving, Mr. Burton, Diana Marburg, and Liv Moore still depend a lot on mundane footwork and rationale to solve their cases. Likewise, astrology is just one of David Lowell’s tools, and Lewis does very well at not making the star-charting feel like a cheat. In fact, Lowell could probably do just fine without astrology, since he’s something of a Superman — or, more correctly, a Bruce Wayne. He’s a wealthy, sophisticated New Yorker. He has a chauffeur and some very cool gizmos in his car that prove to be handy when interrogating a hostile witness. He employs a man who is a genius at computer hacking and has talents as a psychic (the latter ability only quickly mentioned. Perhaps it plays a greater role later the series of novels.) Lowell even has a fourth-degree black belt in aikido. Despite all these advantages, the character must still work hard to solve the case, his kryptonite being his formidable adversary as well as his own advancing age.
The crime he confronts is a complex one, too. It’s nicely constructed and solved. Unfortunately, that tendency to rely on sweeping generalizations that goes with astrology also mars the outcome of the crime. At the risk of giving away too much, let me say that, in Murder in the 11th House, rich Democrats are good while rich Republicans are bad. In fact, party affiliation is spoken of so regularly by the characters, the novel takes on an unusually didactic feel for a work written after the rise of Realism in the late 1800s. An authorial disdain for state lotteries is also far from discreetly presented.
I suppose one might argue that it’s better to apply negative stereotyping to privileged Republicans than to, say, some marginalized ethnic or racial group. But there’s an odd thing about Lewis’s otherwise impressively drawn New York, namely, its surnames. Lowell, Jefferson, Colbert, Winston, Roland, Milford, Osgood, Bowman, and Rogers are conspicuously lacking in ethnic diversity for the cosmopolitan Big Apple. I think about the names in my Help for the Haunted: Van Slyke, Prášilová, Gans, Bergson, Haase, Wou, Adrastos, and Bartowski. Of course, in my book, I’m hoping to capture something of the melting pot in the early 1900s — and, sure, I do have some characters whose ancestry is British. My point is that, while reading Lewis’s novel, I felt like I was in New York in terms of its buildings but not in terms of its population.
By my count, there are two more novels in Lewis’s Starlight Detective Agency Mystery series. I haven’t read them, so I don’t know if the socio-political soap-boxing weakens or the ethnic range of characters strengthens. I also don’t know why the protagonist owns two turtles and wears a lot of turtlenecks. All I know is that Murder in the 11th House offers a well-narrated mystery featuring an enjoyable detective who comes with dashes of superhero pizzazz and an engaging crew of crime-solving cohorts.