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Strange, new mystery requires a strong stomach

The Doll Maker by Richard Montanari is nearly 500 pages long, published by Mulholland Books, a division of prestigious Little Brown and Co., and was released in cloth cover last April. This is what came out of the package I received a couple of months ago.

I had never read anything by Montanari, never even heard of him, although the page opposite the title page lists 11 books by him, the dust jacket boasts of his last book, The Stolen Ones, and his photograph on the back panel shows a conventional, middle-aged man in sensible glasses and a barber-shop haircut with no apparent artistic pretension who goes to work every morning to write books for a living.

Why do I tell you this? Everything about what I found inside the padded envelope from Mulholland screamed “blockbuster,” and I leave the commercially wonderstruck books to sell themselves in airports and grocery stores. Meanwhile, I sift through the offerings of less-bankable authors in the hope we will find diamonds among the ordure, and, after reading many exemplary novels, we again might be able to say that we were country before country was cool. We have been first on the scene with Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Other Typist, The Life We Bury, The Expats, Dead Anyway and the books by Andrea Camilleri, Ace Atkins, Chelsea Cain, Malcolm Mackay, Lori Rader-Day, Lynne Raimondo and dozens more literary lions who missed the express train to Hollywood.

But I cracked open The Doll Maker for very unwholesome reasons: I was sick of reading trade paperbacks (I adore the clothbound book), and the cover illustration was intriguing. Please forgive me for selling you out to my sensate pleasures, but with just three or four days of corporeal pleasure, and wishing to conjure up the sand, the salty sea air and the luscious aroma of Bain de Soleil before I turned to perusing the treasured sleepers, I found one of the weirdest mysteries I’d ever come across.

I offer it only to those of you for whom reading can clinically be called substance abuse. You know who you are. You’re the ones with few friends, and who, in a New York minute, would RSVP regrets to sit at Gov. Hickenlooper’s table because you’re approaching the denouement of a great book, the ones who read too late at night, read at stoplights, hate movies and bring a book to a cocktail party for insurance against finding nothing but dull conversations. And I’d further limit readership to those who’ve read Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels or Chelsea Cain’s breathtaking mysteries.

Now, for you mystery junkies, there’s only a little I can say about The Doll Maker without spoiling it for you. First, be assured that Montanari is a crackerjack writer, which of course is the only way he can get away with writing such a peculiar story.

One of the lines used by one of the principal actors in the first few pages of the book will give you an idea of his wit: “She laughed. Her breath smelled of cigarettes and Altoids and gum disease.”

The Doll Maker tests your stomach for violence at first, then settles down to ordinary murder of children who then are dressed in old-fashioned dolls’ clothing and propped up on sets made especially for each of them in public places, accompanied by notes inviting investigators to come to a tea party.

Intrigue is what this book is about – weird schemes, delusional thinking, crazy antics by quite lovable people. You’ll love it – if you can stand it.

jeff@jeffmannix.com. Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.

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