Shelly Ruben
Spent Matches
Scribner, 1996
313 pages, $21.00 hb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1997 by Gary McGath

Shelly Ruben's earlier novel, Origin and Cause, introduced arson detective Wylie Nolan. In Spent Matches, Nolan returns; for those who read the earlier novel, this may be reason enough in itself to get the new mystery. Once again, we have fascinating characters, an intriguing puzzle, and considerable technical knowledge as elements that make the book very worthwhile.

The puzzle is a locked-room mystery, though without the usual dead body; instead, five paintings have apparently burned in their frames while hung in a closed museum, and alarms which would have warned of any intruder remained silent. Wylie Nolan is brought in to investigate, and provides a mixture of low-key humor and moral passion reminiscent of Hercule Poirot as he unravels the puzzle.

Yet the mystery is arguably not the real plot of the novel. Nolan solves the puzzle of the fire a good ninety pages before the end, and the remainder of the story is devoted to another fire -- a fatal one -- which Nolan must then investigate. The real protagonist of the story is a young man named Camden Kimcannon, who initially has a peripheral role but becomes increasingly important as the book progresses, and is centrally involved in the final mystery. He is both the first and the last character mentioned in the book. Largely cut off from the world by his tyrannical mother, he takes refuge in Arthurian legends and the art of the Pre-Raphaelites; but with the help of friends whom he gainst at the museum, he begins a difficult journey toward independence.

Unfortunately, the plot threads are not very well integrated. There is even a third minor mystery in the middle of the book, concerning fires set in a restroom, which has no relationship to the rest of the story. Until the last part of the novel, there is only one brief scene in which Wylie and Camden appear together.

This is an annoying flaw, but the novel still has enough strengths to be well worth reading. We see people caring about their values and solving their problems, while mysteries are unraveled and frauds are exposed. The presentation is vivid and detailed, and the author obviously shares many of her protagonists' values. I recommend Spent Matches to all who love great art and great mysteries.

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