"Man's brain, enlarged fortuitously, invented words in an ambitious attempt to learn how to think, only to have them usurped by his emotions. But we still try."- Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout's Death of a Dude, 1969)
Previously on this blog, I practically eulogized H. Edward Hunsburger's "Eternally Yours," a short story plucked from the pages of a 1980s edition of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006), as a flawless gem of a detective story. I stand by my opinion, but that's beside the point. The introduction to Hunsburger's sole short mystery story noted the author was probably best known for the novel Death Signs (1987), adapted for the TV series Hunter in 1988, in which a deaf man leaves a dying message in sign language – and that'll be today’s review.
Mattie Shayne is a Minneapolis schoolteacher working with deaf children and part-times as an interpreter at a Medical Center, which is the reason why she finds Police Lieutenant Ryder on her doorstep: a deaf man with stab wounds has been brought into the emergency room and he needs Mattie to get a statement from the man before he passes away. Unfortunately, for the police, Noah Kendrick's "last words" make as much sense as M.C. Escher's sketchbook, "house burned down... no iron man there," but their collaboration doesn't end there.
There were, naturally, deaf acquaintances of the victim and even his much younger widow, Ariana, can't make a statement to Lt. Ryder without Mattie translating the hand gestures and words. After the dark opening of Death Sign, Mattie and Ariana slip in the routine of the bantering, mystery solving couples from the 1940s and throw around allusions to Ellery Queen and Columbo – whose described as "an abused archery target in his disreputable trench coat." However, Mattie also acts a guide for Ryder (who represents the reader) in the deaf community and touches slightly upon their history.
Mattie and Ryder peddle between suspects and witnesses as they uncover Ariana's hidden motives for doing away with her husband, and her possible relationship with the barrel-chested neighbor, Paul Linstrum – who competed in an Iron Man (triathlon) competition. Ariana left another (deaf) man to marry the much richer Kendrick and may harbor a grudge against them. They also hear Kendrick's only friend, Todd Meredith, a deaf art gallery owner, Neil Travers, an artist sponsored by the gallery, and the victim's snooty business partner, Sam Cole.
All in all, a splendid pool of suspects of draw from and Hunsburger places just enough clues to keep it a fair-play mystery, but it does not radiate with the same intensity as the short story mentioned at the beginning of this post. However, Death Signs is still a well written, fast read, that kept my interest with a good enough plot placed against an unfamiliar backdrop. And there aren't that many mystery novels (besides EQ) with a (good) Dying Message as the main plot-device of a story. David Alexander's Murder Points a Finger (1953) is the only example I can think of from the top of my head. Perhaps I should’ve tackled Colin Dexter's The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977) as comparison material before taking on this one. Anyhow, not a perfect mystery, but I enjoyed it.
Lamentably, I have to end this review on a sad note. I was roaming the internet for more on Hunsburger when I learned of his passing on November 28, 2011, after receiving care in an IC-Unit for a head injury, but the unsettling part came when I searched further. I can't claim these two reports are accurate (which you read here and here), but they claim the fatal injuries were sustained during a mugging! However, if these reports are true than the perpetrator(s) deserve the kind of justice only a lethal cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone can provide.