Don't you think God does all things simultaneously?
- M O Dengler
Koko (1988), Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993) are the three 'Blue Rose' novels. They can be read separately, but are much more powerful and resonant if they are read as a sequence.
What Are They About?
On the most basic level, all three books are crime thrillers. Here is an outline of each of them which will not spoil the pleasure of reading them for their plots.
This is set in the winter of 1984-5. A group of Vietnam veterans, formerly members of the same unit, now live varied lives in the USA. They learn of some murders with unusual features which have taken place in Bangkok and Singapore. They realise that their wartime experiences link directly to the murders and they believe that they know the identity of the killer. They agree to attempt to find him, though their motives vary. Their quest takes them to Singapore, Taipei, Bangkok and back to New York. There are more deaths and unexpected changes of direction before their search finally ends in a blacked-out tenement basement.
This is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Mill Walk. It begins in the mid-fifties in order to show us a significant event in the early life of Tom Pasmore, the main character of the book. After fifty pages or so it moves on to the early 1960s. He is seventeen, a 'distant, now oddly unknowable boy' with an unusual ability to understand connections and significances missed by other people. He uses this ability to solve - to his own satisfaction - a recent murder and is shocked when the anonymous letter which he sends to the police outlining his findings has a very different effect from that which he naively anticipated. He persists, discovering connections with a murder from 1925, and with his own life and family. Eventually he uncovers deeper and wider layers of corruption than he ever expected.
The final part of the trilogy is set in the 1990s in the fictional town of Millhaven. A man whose wife has been attacked and almost killed is unhappy about the way the police are handling the case. He calls on an old friend whom he knew from school and Vietnam to help him investigate. Together, and with the help of a reclusive amateur detective, they investigate the recent crimes by uncovering a web of connections between them and a series of murders from forty years previously.
So What Makes Them a Trilogy?
That is, to a certain extent, the point. Things which at first appear to have no connection may be intimately connected, a theme of all three books. There are also more conventional links. The reclusive detective in The Throat is Tom Pasmore from Mystery, now an adult. The friend who is called in is a pivotal character from Koko. Other characters, locations and themes recur and develop. It would not help to be too specific here - discovering the connections is part of the pleasure.
And Where Does Blue Rose Come Into All This?
A series of murders occurs in which the killer writes the words 'Blue Rose' near the body. After initial lack of progress the case is given to a detective who, soon afterwards, kills himself - first writing Blue Rose on the pad on his desk. When he is investigated, it turns out that he was an unstable man who was involved with all the previous victims and had reason to kill them. Case closed: he was the Blue Rose killer, and has now killed himself in remorse. These are the murders from forty years previously, mentioned in the above summary of The Throat.
These 'real life' events are turned into a successful novel called The Divided Man by one of the main characters of the trilogy. Everyone 'knows' that the detective did it; his guilt passes into folklore because of The Divided Man. But then more information is brought to light, and things may not have been what they seemed. In fact, aspects of the Blue Rose murders echo through all three books, their eventual solution being a linking theme.
What Makes Them So Good?
The epigraph of Koko is a quotation from alto saxophonist Frank Morgan:
I believe it is possible and even recommended to play the blues on everything.
This is exactly what Straub does. He picks up a familiar and nicely run-in instrument (the crime novel) and gives a virtuoso performance of a set of changes that we are used to hearing on a different instrument entirely - the 'literary' novel. Straub's main achievement is that, against the odds, this synthesis really works.
You can read the trilogy as a set of powerful crime thrillers à la Thomas Harris1 if you wish. But you will also find the well-drawn characters, excellent writing and seriousness of theme that are expected from novelists whose books are reviewed in the Arts section. The interconnectedness of things, the relationship between belief and illusion and reality, and the persistence of evil, are all explored subtly and in depth.
The three books for which Straub is best known are probably the supernatural tales Ghost Story, The Talisman and Black House, the last two in collaboration with Stephen King. The bulk of critics therefore label him 'genre writer', a lazy and sloppy categorisation which permits them to ignore him. If you can get past this unhelpful stereotype and treat the Blue Rose books with the seriousness that they deserve, a rewarding experience awaits you. Just don't expect an easy ride.