There are certain pleasures that any regular novel reader is familiar with. The discovery of a new author is one of them. Re-reading an old favorite is another. And, of course, there is the pleasure of a new book from an old favorite author. When the author in question has passed away, this is a pleasure that becomes exceedingly rare. Sooner or later, you’ve tracked down all their published works and read them, and then there is nothing more to discover.
That is why The Dead Man’s Brother came as something of a surprise, and why I actually didn’t find out about the book until a few years after its publication. Roger Zelazny passed away in 1995; I was not looking for new Zelazny books in 2009. Even the posthumous collaborations in which some other author finished his half-written works had long since stopped by then, so a new wholly-Zelazny novel was not something I expected to see.
The novel was apparently written in 1971, and was left unpublished, lingering unnoticed in a desk for decades. It is easy to tell a potential reason for this from early on in the novel. It’s not the quality of the book, but its genre that I suspect is the reason for its obscurity. Zelazny was primarily an author of science fiction and fantasy — as the cover of this book notes, he won the Hugo Award six times for his novels and short stories. I am aware of a few books of poetry that Zelazny wrote, but I can think of only one other novel of his that wasn’t SF&F: the Gerald Hausman collaboration Wilderness, a historical western based on the stories of John Colter and Hugh Glass. The Dead Man’s Brother marks a second departure from the sci-fi and fantasy genres — or first departure, since it was technically written earlier, if published later.
It’s a pulp crime novel, with international intrigue, a femme fatale, and millions of missing dollars. The main character, Ovid Wiley, is a former art thief turned reputable dealer who finds himself unwillingly drafted into a CIA investigation when his former partner turns up dead in his apartment. From there, he’s asked to use his unique expertise, connections, and luck to investigate a case of a Vatican City cleric who has embezzled a vast fortune. While in a different genre, it still has some of the traditional Zelazny hallmarks: a sardonic protagonist providing first person narrative, some colorful turns of phrase, and an adventure that moves quickly and has a lot of unexpected twists and turns.
However, it does lack some of Zelazny’s usual flair. Ovid isn’t quite as deep a character as Sam from Lord of Light or Corwin from The Chronicles of Amber (though, to be fair, he doesn’t get nearly as many pages as either of those characters.) While he is easily an entertaining narrator — and one could see this book working well in a film adaptation — the development of his character is not a steady process. There are sides of his personality that manifest late in the book that have no prior signs, such as his turn from pragmatism to vengeance. Additionally, this is one of those novels that preserves the mystery by playing everything close to the vest; 90% of the explanations for what is going on takes place in the last ten pages. Some people may enjoy that, but I prefer a more gradual unfolding, as well as the exceptional foreshadowing in some of his other works. When I re-read most Zelazny novels, I often find hints of the plot twists hundreds of pages in advance; I suspect that when I re-read The Dead Man’s Brother, as I no doubt eventually will, I will not find many advance hints.
Still, even a lesser Zelazny work is an entertaining read, and to find a new one is something I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to experience again. The Dead Man’s Brother may suffer a bit from the expectations built up by its bibliographical brethren, but it is still a worthwhile read for fans of either Roger Zelazny or pulp fiction.