NESFA Members' Reviews

The Silk Code

by Paul Levinson

Tor, 1999, ISBN 0-312-86823-5

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

This starts off as a police procedural. It ends as a police procedural. Along the way, there's this section set in the eighth century, without which it would still be science fiction, but you could still shelve it in the mystery section and probably no one would claim they'd been the victim of false advertising.

And I cannot dissuade myself from the notion that that eighth-century section, for all its inherent attractions as a section of a different novel entirely, in this novel is simply an unusually intrusive info dump. You couldn't cut it out without working that information into the book some other way, but this would be a stronger book if Levinson had taken the time and trouble to do that.

Nevertheless, this is still an interesting and enjoyable book. Dr. Phil D'Amato, a NYC forensic detective, goes to visit a friend, another forensic scientist, in Lancaster, PA. He has barely arrived--not taken his bags out of his car--when the friend, Mo Buhler, drags him off to go visit an Amish friend, saying that he's discovered some "really interesting techniques." When they get there, they learn that the Amish friend has died suddenly, of a heart attack, and a brother Mo hasn't met before is guarding the homestead quite aggressively. They depart rapidly, and Mo, in an apparent state of alarm, announces that instead of going home, they need to go to Philadelphia. And then he starts to show signs of an allergic reaction, and with not more than two hours of Phil's arrival in Lancaster, Mo Buhler is dead. Having absolutely zero evidence that Mo died of anything other than natural causes, Phil launches his own investigation--and discovers that the "interesting techniques" Mo had mentioned to him include such useful things as breeding fireflies to live in lamps and have a flicker rate that allows them to provide useful amounts of light, and such fun stuff as catalysts to produce fatal allergies in previously unaffected people, and fireflies that, under the right circumstances (including swarms of sufficient size) produce enough heat to start fires that burn down the houses and barns of the inconvenient.

So, who killed Mo's friend Joseph, not to mention Mo? Well. Not the Amish. A group that looks and acts outwardly a lot like the Amish, a group often mistaken by outsiders for Amish. But the Amish aren't about to explain; when Phil says, "Let me get them shut down", they say, "Like you've shut down your own criminals?" They insist these people are their problem and they'll deal with it.

So, what does all this have to do with the three Neanderthal corpses that suddenly appear, in New York, and Toronto, and London? Or the death of the Toronto medical examiner, of a heart attack, right afterwards? And the rather strange janitor, who might have been the New York Neanderthal corpse, but turns up a week or two later, with a perfectly plausible story about having been on vacation? Why does the janitor carry a silk handerchief, and why was an apparently identical silk handkerchief found on the NY Neanderthal corpse? And why, exactly, does one of Phil's New York colleagues, the one who examined the New York Neaderthal corpse, suddenly become very ill, and die, weeks later--after, as it turns out, his wife sends their silk sheets out to be cleaned?

Phil and his colleagues and friends start chasing themselves, each other, and the paucity of real clues in circles, unable to trust each other because it's all too painfully clear that someone on the inside of the investigation is leaking information even before Phil and the others are sure there's a crime to investigate. When one of those people is killed in circumstances that superficially suggest a motive for Phil to have done it, things get really scary.

Not a perfect book, by any means, but very interesting, and enjoyable.

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