For some reason it has been nine years since I’ve reviewed a Jane Haddam novel, despite the fact that I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the 25 or so books in her Gregor Demarkian mystery series. Flowering Judas is the most recent; this time I’m not passing up the chance to review it.
The most notable characteristic of these novels is the enduring sense of place and ethnicity. The detective, Gregor Demarkian, starts out as a high-ranking FBI profiler and retires at some point late in the series. Now he’s freelance. As you can tell from his name, he is of Armenian descent (the popular press referring to him with the awkward identifier of “the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot), and this ethnicity plays either a minor or a major role in practically every book. He lives on a heavily Armenian block in Philadelphia, where almost all of his neighbors share his background — including his friend, the local priest, but definitely not his eventual wife, who comes from a Main Line Philadelphia Protestant heritage.
But what about the stories? What about Flowering Judas in particular? The story lines are always captivating, even if the minor characters are always paper-thin stereotypes. Usually I don’t quote other reviewers very much, but in this case I don’t want to reinvent the wheel so I will quote some excerpts from an Amazon reviewer who calls herself “MysteryPoodle” but is apparently named Kristin Murdock IRL:
Haddam has the Cavanaugh Street neighborhood in Philadelphia in which Demarkian and his neighbors all live as an extended family of sorts; many reviewers have noted that the neighborhood has, itself, become a character in the books, but a multi-faceted and complex one, not the boorish and slapstick sort a few towns and their inhabitants have become in some of the rather sillier amateur detective series.
Sleuth Gregor Demarkian is fictionally the ‘inventor’ of the FBI’s profiling section and who, now retired, is called in by local police forces that are making less progress in murder cases than is desirable. Demarkian is an extremely appealing protagonist because he thinks logically, works with authorities appropriately, handles crime scenes and evidence correctly, is polite and is also older and not an action hero; in short, he’s the kind of guy you’d really LIKE to believe exists. He works the way you’d like to think someone works, within a system that needs a strong shepherding hand to bring confusion into order…
In this book, Demarkian travels to Mattatuck, New York, where the body of a man has been discovered hanging from a billboard, a billboard that happens to exist to publicize the disappearance of this same man from this same town twelve years ago…
Inevitably, the reason for his disappearance as well as the drama of his showing up again — dead — initiate several series of events in this moderately-sized town where everyone seems to know everyone else, along with all their business.
Along the way, we see how economic stimulus funds were used to buy crime scene technology that no one knows how to use, while police radios don’t work in half the county; we explore the unique economics of the adjunct instructor at the local community college, a 60-year-old PhD who receives less than $2000 to teach 14 weeks of a class but who, since adjuncts are prohibited by law in New York from teaching more than two courses a semester, is living in her car; hard-working Albanian immigrants who have some interesting observations about the American welfare system and its inhabitants; a consideration of the importance of ‘cultural context’ in education as a diligent young scholar compares her own effort to that of the ‘smart’ kids and realizes that they just grew up knowing some things that she’s had to struggle to just get into the same room with; some pretty dysfunctional families; and an exploration of the sunset of the life of one of the oldest and most beloved of the Cavanaugh street residents. Honestly, the mystery is pretty good, but it’s the “getting there” — all the meat in this book — that makes it such a superlative read.
You may be wondering why someone named Haddam is writing about Armenians. There’s no law, of course, saying that any ethnic group you write about has to be your own, but I for one still wondered. Maybe Haddam is her father’s name, and her mother is named Kardashian or something like that? But no, it turns out that Haddam is a pseudonym; her real name is Orania Papazoglou. That’s clearly a Greek first name with a Hellenized Turkish last name, so what’s up with that? Why would an Armenian have a Turkish last name of all things? I have a hypothesis — totally unsupported by any evidence except for familiarity with other non-Turks who have Turkish family names (and similar situations in other ethnicities). My guess is that her family is indeed Armenian, but they Turkicized their last name a generation or two ago in order to fit into Turkish society, similar to Americans who have changed their name from Bernstein to Burns or whatever. Just a guess, as I say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I’m right.