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Getting the creeps from half-told tale

The Holy: Novel; By Daniel Quinn; Context Books: 414 pages, $25

October 30, 2002|Daniel Cariaga | Times Staff Writer

"The Holy," the latest novel by Daniel Quinn ("Ishmael"), centers on an unwilling, semiretired detective who has become involved in a tale of metaphysical sleuthing. The search for information on otherworldly beings and for a middle-age man who has seemingly dropped out of life takes Chicago detective Howard Scheim across the Midwest to Las Vegas and finally to Taos, N.M., where the climax of the mystery takes place at a mountaintop retreat. But the book's unfolding plot keeps the reader off guard and often irritated by half-revealed clues. Until the climax, and in fact until the novel starts winding down around the 400th page, all is cloudy, vague, inconclusive and frustrating.

A rich patron and friend of Scheim's, Aaron Fischer, asks the part-time private investigator to take on the question of aliens in our midst: nonhumans who have been present in this world since before the ascent of humankind, beings variously identified over the ages as spirits, gods and demons.

Not by coincidence, it turns out, Scheim's early failures to enter into the world of these beings changes when his life meshes with that of the dropout, David Kennesey. After years of middle-class monotony in the educational publishing business, Kennesey suddenly decides to leave his wife and 12-year-old son and embarks on a westward journey by car.

Meanwhile, the detective, having put a foot into arcane waters -- he has visited devil-worshipers, talked to psychics, interviewed Talmudic scholars and gotten no closer to firsthand knowledge -- is soon surrounded by the beings he seeks. But he doesn't realize it at first.

Then, as if by chance, Scheim finds himself on the trail of Kennesey, along with Kennesey's son, Tim, who has been searching for his father. They go to Las Vegas, where Kennesey has made a phenomenal win at poker and has again disappeared. They follow his trail to a home in Taos, which Kennesey has already left. There they find an Addams family of others--call them what you will, they are the ones who call the shots in this tale the publisher describes as a "metaphysical thriller."

Perhaps. The occupants of the New Mexico aerie certainly pass colorful lives, though they seem to operate without a moral compass and in a zone of daily activity ungoverned by time. There are no clocks in this world.

Altogether, this is not a happy story, even though there are only a few fatalities by the end. The creepiness one feels comes not from the subject matter but from the vagueness and muddy waters of the writing. The people are not fully described, the settings could be more vividly drawn, details are often sketchy and too many chapters end with a contrived surprise. Nonetheless, the story more or less holds the reader, and the material on Jewish mysticism is compelling.

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