Art in the Blood
Review by Mike Finkelstein
In my past reviews of the books in the "Vampire Files" series, my biggest critique was that, for a series setup to function like mysteries, there actually wasn't all that much in the way of mysteries in the novels. That's not to say that there weren't crimes to solve, or cases to work, more just that there weren't any real clues to detect. When the heroes, vampire Jack Flemming and his friend Charles Escott, solved a case in these first three books it was because all the evidence suddenly came up at the end. The ambiance of the books was certainly great but there was a key component missing from these gumshoe tales.
That changes in this fourth book in the series, Art in the Blood. Where the first three books were concerned with, essentially, the origin story of Jack Flemming, Vampire Detective (all three gathered into a omnibus later after release, making a nice collected set of this overarching story), everything we needed to know about Jack, the vampire that made him, Maureen, and what happened to that vampiress was solved by the end of the third book. Jack could no longer solve those mysteries so he and Escott would actually have to find new mysteries to solve (as just stretching out that story further would have taken the series past the point of credulity). This is the first novel to give us a real, new mystery to solve and it's much better for it.
It's like Elrod paid attention to the critiques I raised (which, likely, were the critiques others raised as well), as this book answers so many issues I had, right from the opening of the story. Bobbi, Jack's gal (and a singer/lounge performer) is hired by a couple of rich artists to play their "Gallery Opening" party, and Jack goes along as her "plus one". While at the party, Jack helps to break up a bit of a dispute between a low-level mob guy and an up-and-coming artist, Evan Robely. This sucks Jack into Evan's world, introducing him to famous artist (who was also famous for being accused of murdering his wife), Alex Adrian, along with Evan's more talented sister, Sandra. But when Sandra ends up dead, Jack and Escott feel compelled to investigate the case themselves instead of just leaving it to the cops.
This setup gives us a number of things that work so well (and better than in the previous books). For one, while Jack being a vampire is important to how he solves cases it's not integral to the plot of the story. We have a new social world to explore, with new characters unrelated to Jack or his past, meaning not everything has to be about our vampire detective. Although I liked the first three books, there was this sense that they focused too much on Jack, how everything was connected to him in some capacity, like how people complain that everyone in the Star Wars series is somehow related. Having Jack meet new people, and delve into a different world, makes this book feel fresh and new and interesting.
It's also nice to have people that are actually (relatively) normal for a change. Previous books were mired in Chicago underworld settings and characters, or dealing with past vampires (or people wanting to be vampires). Here, though, we have artists and creatively inclined folk as our focal points. They don't understand violence, or death (well, except maybe Alex Adrian as he continues to mourn the passing of his wife from an apparent suicide), and their different energy means we have a new class of characters to explore, different perspectives to enjoy and appreciate.
That's not to downplay the fact that Jack is a vampire as his powers and abilities are integral to this case getting solved. The book explores his powers a little more, letting us in to his process -- what it's like to go into mist form, what the hypnosis is like. While he is super-powered, he's not infinitely powerful. He can still be injured, is still fallible, and, sometimes, have to worry about his well being. But this book also shows us how often Jack has to worry about those around him; even if he can avoid damage others around him could be hurt and he cares very much about the collateral damage that can occur. He's a vampire with a conscience, making him a compelling hero, especially her as he befriends Evan and Sandra and Alex and learns about their world from his outsider's perspective.
The book also firms up another issue I had with the previous novels: it treats Bobbi a lot better. Previous books only ever used her as a damsel in distress, or a prize for Jack to win. Hell, in the third book she barely had a part at all as Jack and Escott left Chicago on the trail of Maureen. But here, Bobbi not only (essentially) brings Jack into the story (since he's her Plus One), but she helps with the artists. She's engaged with them on a social level early in the story, then consoles them after the murder occurs, and continues to be an integral part of the story as the novel evolves. Bobbi is a good character and I'm glad the novels finally give her enough story to help flesh her out even further.
Most satisfying, though, is that there is a real mystery in this story. There's a murder (as mentioned), a pool of suspects, evidence implicating a few different people, but only one real solution that works. The mystery is set up early and if you're paying attention you can see how it all ties up, where the clues come from and how everything works. I actually figured out this mystery, putting it all together while I read, and actually having the solution right felt very satisfying. The novel is constructed like a proper mystery and it works so well.
If there was any issue I had with the book its that not all the new characters introduced get the same level of care and attention. Without spoiling anything, some of the suspects are focused on while others aren't, and if you pay attention you get a feel for while characters have the author's affection. This could lead you to actually guess the real killer, if you understand the author's prose and writing style. Maybe that's more than most people pay attention for, but it was a clue I used, a sort of meta-text to go along with the text. More time put in with all the characters would have blunted this line of reasoning.
Still over all this novel is greatly improved over the (already good) previous books in the series. I really enjoy Elrod's prose and this book indicates that the "Vampire Files" can move beyond its original trilogy into broad, and interesting, gumshoe tales. I really hope this series is able to keep up the energy of Art in the Blood as there are plenty more books in this series to cover and I'm enjoying the pulp-vampire-detective vibe its evolved.