October 20, 2006
Hom-Astubby has a problem — constant good luck. This doesn’t seem like a problem to most people, but given his recent winnings at a casino and his fear of the Internal Revenue Service, perhaps Hom-Astubby’s fear is justified. Still, one would think stumbling across a woman’s body and reporting her as dead to the local authorities, only for the body to have disappeared when he takes the sheriff to the alleged crime scene, is a much bigger problem.
Hom-Astubby encounters both — and more — in Black Silk Handkerchief (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, 368 pages). His life is a roller coaster of adventure, confusion and drama, but that doesn’t make his story a page turning read. Instead, the first volume in a new murder mystery series by Spur-Award winning author D.L. Birchfield is the literary version of amnesia.
In theory, Birchfield constructs an interesting premise. Now a freelance photographer, Hom-Astubby, travels to Colorado on assignment and stumbles into a story that could take down the country’s most powerful developer — the same developer who once ruined Hom-Astubby’s photojournalism career. If Birchfield had stuck to this idea, the book would indeed be a mystery. However, Birchfield also tries to blend in romance, reflection, photography and geography to the point where everything falls flat.
If that isn’t enough, Birchfield also feels the need to explain every aspect of Hom-Astubby’s life in great detail. Even more unsettling are the times he chooses to share this information. Why would Hom-Astubby ponder his recent casino winnings and the tax headaches after seeing what he believes is the semi-naked body of a dead woman? Most people would find themselves unable to think of little else.
Other aspects of the story are just as confusing. Who strikes up a close relationship with a sheriff based on a mutual friend? Is any bond so tight as to not ask questions when the body of dead woman isn’t where someone claims he saw it? And would a reporter team with a photographer she has never met before and willingly share all the details of her exclusive story?
The book has its moments of entertainment. The scene during which Hom-Astubby discovers the dog he befriended — later cutting and dying its hair to shield it from police — gets a show dog prized for its laugh-out-loud funny. The moments Hom-Astubby’s cell phone rings as he is hiding from Charles Uber are grippingly suspenseful. However, the meeting in which Hom-Astubby finally comes face-to-face with Avalon O’Neill (dog owner and semi-naked woman) is off-putting. There’s romance and there’s lust. Hom-Astubby readily admits early in the book that he is attracted to O’Neil. However, the thoughts he has upon their encounter are purely sexist.
Hom-Astubby’s world is one where good fortune is never far behind. Photos he shot at random bring in big cash as the mystery unravels. The semi-naked woman becomes Hom-Astubby’s partner and lover. And newspaper contacts he made years ago are more than willing to share the inside dirt. Black Silk Handkerchief never develops into the story it could because even in the world of fiction, Hom-Astubby’s luck is too outlandish to believe.
Meredith Hines-Dochterman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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