A Mystery and a Mural in Warren Easley's MATTERS OF DOUBT
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Jan 20 2014, 12:33 PM
                                   A MURAL AND A MYSTERY IN WARREN EASLEY'S MATTERS OF DOUBT                       
         The plot of Warren Easley's Matters of Doubt, the first in a planned series of three mysteries, is not difficult to summarize.  After the suicide of his wife, Calvin Claxton III, known as Cal, leaves his position in Los Angeles as a lead prosecutor to resettle in a small community in Oregon outside of Portland. There he seeks peace in a secluded house in the wine country, with his dog Archie as his only housemate. With his pension and the income from a small law practice he has established, he has simplified his life, enjoying the ability to engage in fly fishing whenever he can.  But this change in lifestyle is disrupted when, after a woman’s disappearance eight years earlier, her body is found at the bottom of a reservoir on a rich man's property. Her son, Daniel Baxter aka Picasso because of his artistic talent, is part of a community of displaced and usually homeless people who inhabit Portland to the displeasure of most of its permanent residents. They assume the homeless are dangerous, inclined to criminal behavior. But this concern is probably also a cover-up for their fear that at the very presence of the homeless adversely affects their quality of life. And, probably, that their presence will affect for the worse their property value.  
,     Picasso is quite sure that he knows who killed his mother: the lover with whom she quarreled shortly before disappearing. After failing to engage the police's help, he turns to Cal, who at first declines to be involved and then relents, only to be drawn more than he intended into the crime and its aftermath.  When Picasso openly fights with the lover at a memorial service for his mother, and the man is found murdered with a weapon traceable to Picasso, the young man is the obvious suspect and is arrested and held in jail without bond. But Cal keeps up his investigation, and as a result he becomes unwillingly and also unwittingly implicated in another murder.  Not only is his peace disturbed, but Cal's own freedom is at stake when he is arrested and charged as an accessory to murder.
    What  adds depth to Matters of Doubt are some consistent and thought-provoking themes, some of them emerging from the specifics of Cal's situation and some of them extending to wider concerns, such as what constitutes justice or what would be the most effective environment for sustaining the best in human nature. Such concerns are not as easily resolved as investigating suspects in a crime and, having identified the perpetrators, prosecuting and punishing them. Easley’s readers do not have to contemplate these themes and can just immerse themselves in the puzzle and the colorful characters who are very enjoyable, as reviewers of book point out. Who killed Picasso’s mother, for what reasons, and why do subsequent murders take place when Cal and Picasso (and another character, Nando, who will be discussed shortly, begin their investigation.    
      The main characters in Matters of Doubt and even some minor ones not only flesh out the plot but also dramatize Easley’s narrative motifs.  Even Cal's dog assumes more than obvious importance. As a loved pet, Archie is very sensitive and responsive to his environment and to his owner, and readers will find him very endearing. What Cal particularly values in Archie is the unconditional love that the dog gives him. This uncomplicated attachment becomes a touchstone for other relationships in Cal's life.  Cal misses his wife and believes he has lost something that he can never recover or replace. But obviously theirs was not an unconditional love if she was, as Cal thinks, made unhappy by his attention to his work. That he longs for her warm body while alone in his bed indicates that while nature is satisfying, celibacy is not for him natural. When Cal becomes the lover of Anna, a doctor who runs a free clinic for Portland's homeless or helpless, he is again faced with conditional love. What Archie gives to Cal is an ideal. It nevertheless raises an important question for those seeking a partner in another person. Can an ideal such as unconditional love ever be achieved by two humans?  Would it not be better if two persons not make it the basis of their commitment to each other?  Idealism can too easily lead to disillusionment; and what exists between Cal and Anna is highly problematic, susceptible to trouble that needs to be resolved if they are to stay together. At the end of Matters of Doubt, Anna and Cal embark on a journey to the Norwegian fjords whose grandeur and beauty can epitomize the natural world in which Cal seeks peace.  Archie is the lynch pin between the social world of interactive people and nature, which at its best will help Cal heal. But their trip will be a respite and probably not a permanent solution to conflicts that have already threatened to drive Cal and Anna apart. The book's hopeful ending, therefore, does not guarantee they will live happily ever after.  
     Anna Erickson not only treats the injuries and illness of the homeless but also tries to help them in other ways. She encourages them to give up drugs; points them to places where tattoos that typecast them can be removed; sends prostitutes to safe houses where they can be helped to give up what is called “the life”; and in general serves not only as a physician but also a social worker. Anna is physically and emotionally fatigued much of the time, but she is driven by her own past to continue what she does.  Like Cal, Anna is filled with guilt that she is probably expiating by nurturing her patients. Her brother had died as the result of being stabbed in a fight over a sleeping bag when he too had become homeless. At the time, Anna was busy in medical school, and, like Cal, she failed—or so she believes—to prevent a loved family member’s death. It is also important to Easley’s depiction of  the young homeless population in Portland that her parents had disowned their son, not as a ploy to force him to get help when he hit bottom and wanted their help to begin the climb up, but because they do not want to be associated with his  wayward life. Their role in Easley’s mystery is only alluded to but is very important, for both Cal and Anna find families the source of the pain, disillusionment, and hopelessness that drive away their children. Their defiance is almost proportional to their desperation.
     The personal life of detectives is a staple in the plots of mysteries. Some detectives, such as Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford, find in family life the security and peace absent in the sordid cases they get immersed in.  Sometimes an already established relationship weakens or even crumbles because solving a crime, even to the point of missing important family events, demands full-time attention that may leave the dismayed partner disappointed or angry.  In Jeffrey Siger's Target: Tinos, Andreas Kaldis is so engaged in hunting for a killer and rescuing from harm his friend Tassos that readers will in suspense wonder if he will attend his own, elaborately planned wedding.   Other times a relationship within a police department crumbles because of the pressures of the job or the ambitions of one of the parties; this happens in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series. That the relationship begins well and then just doesn't work is still another familiar feature of plots in mysteries. In extreme cases, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, and Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi, the lover is the guilty person the investigator has been looking for, and in such instances, the detective become directly or indirectly an executioner.
     A very different relationship, one based on shared ideologies rather than erotic attraction can be found in a very renowned Swedish crime fiction series.  This series not only depicts a personal relationship comparable to that between Cal and Anna but also highlights the difficulties faced by Easley’s couple.  The Swedish writing pair, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo planned to write ten books in their series, depicting the decline of Sweden, and offering a socialist state as a solution (Wahloo was throughout his adult life a communist). The killer in the first book, Roseanna, is in the tenth portrayed as a victim more than a murderer. Early in the series, Martin Beck, a detective in the Swedish National Police, is trapped in a miserable marriage And his children seem completely indifferent to him. Beck’s chronic colds and other ailments suggest a deep depression—but then most famous Scandinavian detectives are depressed. Their winters are not only cold and wet, because it seems always to be raining or snowing, but also dark, daylight fading only too soon.  Successful personal relations will be especially important to them, but their very depression will make it difficult to begin or maintain relationships. It will, nevertheless, be a woman who rescues Martin Beck and lifts him out of his malaise. 
     Beck, now separated from his wife, as Cal has lost his wife to suicide, meets Rhea Nielsen, who had inherited a multi-apartment dwelling. Just as Anna offers free medical services to those who come to her clinic, Rhea tries to run her house like a commune,  indifferent to its potential for making a profit. Rhea is described by one critic as “open, assertive, generous, and , in short, wonderful.” Almost too good to be true, the critic adds. She nonetheless makes Beck happy and he now has someone he looks forward to coming home to, although it is part of their modern outlook that they will not marry and subject their relationship to the traditions of a society they mutually disapprove of. It is clear, however, that their shared political and social ideologies are the bonds that will keep them together.
    Similarly, Cal and Anna have become not only lovers but also two people who share a common cause, the plight of the disinherited homeless of Portland to whom Anna seems to have committed her life.  They are also brought together because each is convinced he or she failed a close relative who died, in Cal's case his wife, in Anna's her brother. They  berate themselves for having been so completely focused on their own lives and careers that they failed to prevent the final catastrophes. Their differences from Martin Beck and Rhea Nielsen are, however, pronounced. Cal is looking for peace; Anna appears to be seeking redemption. When a drug addict Anna is trying to help ends up dead, she feels the failure keenly and responds to Cal's attempts to persuade her that she had done all she could by saying, “We never do enough for these kids.”  
      When Cal asks himself whether there would ever be room in her heart for any but the downtrodden, he is also suggesting that shared social concerns will not be self-sufficient reasons for them to stay together. Beck and Rhea have no disagreements about their mutual beliefs, but Cal and Anna sometimes clash.  When an angry Anna rebukes him for doubting Picasso’s innocence, Cal retorts that perhaps they have different views of human nature. It is difficult to imagine such an exchange between Beck and Rhea. They are united in a philosophy so abstract as to become impersonal. Again, Matters of Doubt  ends on a hopeful note about Anna and Cal but among many matters of doubt in Easley’s book is whether they can overcome their differences, which are considerable.  A relationship such as Beck’s and Rhea is, however, not very interesting.  Conflict in a novel adds spice to the story, and complexity keeps the readers’ attention.
     The open-ended conclusion concerning Cal and Anna creates an interesting parallel between Easley’s series and Picasso’s painting.  The analogy is, of course, not exact but it is meaningful. A standalone mystery is like a single painting that, once it is hung in a home, art gallery, or museum is fixed in time and space. True, some paint mediums, like oil, allow for change, for painting over the original.  But this would be very rare once the piece of art were displayed. On view, the painting is what it is. Even when the painter takes as subject a significant historical or mythological event and works on a very large canvas, the art work can only capture a brief moment. The Crowning of the Empress Josephine by her husband Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David) or The Birth of Venus (Sandro Botticelli) tells only part of a story, back stories or prophesies of the future can only be hinted at, if at all.  It is the viewer who must fill in the rest of the narrative.
     A mural, on the other hand--like a series of related paintings or a series of tapestries such as The Hunting of the Unicorn--can move through both time and place to tell a more complete and continuous story.  Parts of the mural may be deleted and replaced by new figures or events as the artist has the ability to alter the original conception of the work of art. Similarly, a mystery series allows for a change in the main characters or single protagonist such as Cal Claxton. After the first book, back stories can be supplied or told with more detail than in the previous book. Unanswered questions can be answered, such as what were the signs of depression that Cal thinks he failed to recognize before his wife's suicide. Characters who made only a brief appearance in the first book can become more familiar. Cal's daughter Claire is only briefly mentioned in Matters of Doubt, whereas Easley (in a private conversation) tells me his readers will get to know her better in Dead Float, the next book. Clearly, Easley is making use of the potential a series but not a standalone would allow him. And his readers will be pleased that the end of Matters of Doubt is not really the end.  
         There are other connections between Picasso's mural and Easley's series.  The mural is an example of what is known as street art.  Just as a book may be borrowed from a library, street art is free to those who pass by and choose to stop and look at it.  A mural can tell a single, continuous story, or it can tell a series of related stories. Anna, who feels a strong bond with Picasso, had urged him to use his mural to promote the cause of health care, but he has expressive needs of his own to add.  In part of his mural, he has a group of figures, his heroes: Gandhi, Lennon, even—to her dismay—the unassuming Anna.  Another part of his mural depicts a graveyard with headstones upon which are written the names of schools in which young pupils, children, were massacred by insane shooters. In an amusing episode toward the end of the book, an uncertain but potential donor who can help Cal, Anna, and Picasso elevate the level of care they can offer the homeless, remains doubtful until bribed by Picasso, who agrees to put him in the mural if the deal were made. Undoubtedly, agreement would be reached because the donor thought that he would win some kind of prominence and perhaps even immortality in a work of art. Picasso knows better.  Street art is transient and will not last forever.  Which is all right with him.  Picasso has little ego invested in his art. Rather he uses it for its capacity to allow him self-expression and a chance to make a social statement about the world as he perceives it.  As there are social issues depicted in Picasso’s mural, so are there in Matters of Doubt.
     The themes in Matters of Doubt are very complex, for what is made explicit infers other subjects, and it is possible to get a seemingly infinite number of discussions going among readers, if as an example they belong to a book club. The overarching theme in Easley’s book can be described as a conflict between nature and culture, a struggle that has occupied the minds of psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, fiction writers, to name but a few. Culture has so many meanings that, Adam Kuper in his book Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account, suggests that as a word it may no longer be useful. In Matters of Doubt  it would be a conflict between nature and civilization. (There really is a difference; see my forthcoming essay, “Nature and Civilization in Warren Easley’s Matters of Doubt.)For this conflict can be found over and over in Easley’s first book, in his descriptions of places, in his portrayal of characters, and in the episodes that contribute to his plot. 
     But culture  has not yet lost its meaning, and it is worth some discussion. There are in fact many cultures in Matters of Doubt and they can be distinguished from one another. To leave out culture, moreover, is also to omit from this discussion one of its major and perhaps most colorful character, Hernando Menendez, known as Nando.  
     . Simply put, culture can be described as that which unites a group of people who usually but not always share the same space, and who are bound by the same laws, moral codes, beliefs and traditions. It can an also define a subgroup within a society.  There are many such subcultures in Matters of Doubt.  In fact, Easley uses the word to describe Cal's former place in the Los Angeles “law enforcement culture [italics added].”  But the homeless in Portland also form their own cultures, just as individual families can claim to have theirs, especially if their ethnic origins define them as a minority group not totally accepted into the dominant culture they live in. Then too, there are those who wish to assimilate completely and discard their cultures.  Sometimes they are not allowed to and are looked at with suspicion. Mystery writers have used the confrontation between two or more cultures in their plots.  In Easley’s mystery, the clash does not involve ethnic minorities, but the homeless who have flocked to Portland and live, for the most part, on the streets as opposed to the settled citizens of the city. The latter view the homeless as not only hostile to their way of life, but also as a criminal group that is dangerous. Some of Portland’s homeless have gathered in a place called Dignity Village, a collection of small, ramshackle structures that its residents maintain with varying degrees of what could be called civilization. Portland was only too happy to donate the land for Dignity Village, for it isolates its inhabitants and puts them out of sight.  Dignity Village has its own set of rules and regulations and these must be adhered to if a resident is allowed to remain there. In that sense, Dignity Village can be said to have its own culture.
     But the true differences between cultures in Matters of Doubt are those that differentiate Cal from a Cuban émigré named Hernando Mendoza, called Nando. In many ways Nando serves as Cal’s sidekick, and an unusual one at that—an original. Nando had made his way from Cuba to the United States in a boat he had built himself. It is not freedom from communism that he is seeking; rather he is unabashedly capitalistic and wants the good life the United States can offer. Cal has, however, decided on a simpler life; the ability to cover his basic expenses and time for fly fishing is what he will happily settle for. His move from Los Angeles to Oregon has made clear for him the ways in which success and a higher income than the one he now has fail to fulfill him. For Nando, however, accumulating money, getting rich, is his idea of enjoying the American Dream. He nonetheless reveals nostalgia for his homeland and sometimes even compares it to the United States to the latter’s detriment.  For Nando is shocked by the plight of the homeless.  In Cuba people may be poor but if down-and-out they will be taken care of by the state. They will not starve.  But neither will they eat much meat and Nando recounts an amusing and perhaps not-so-amusing way in which he managed to sustain himself as a carnivore. He had exchanged sex for meat with an older woman who could makes sure he is never without it. Nando’s past deprivation may be the reason that Nando is a glutton and many of his meetings with Cal take place in good restaurants. In his former life in Los Angeles, Cal frequented such dining places, but now it is when he is Nando’s guest that he can afford them.
     Cal thinks that what brings him and Nando together is food. But as antithetical as their values are, as different as the cultures that formed them, Cal and Nando make a good team. What unites them is a basic sense of decency if not an identical one. Perhaps some of  the communist idealogy which at least in theory had to do with the good of the many rather than any individual had rubbed off on Nando in Cuba.  He is greedy but he can be generous.  Nando has many useful contacts Cal has no access to during his investigation of the murders. Among Nando’s entrepreneurial ventures is an apartment house he is planning to renovate for profit; but in the meantime, he can let Cal live in one of the empty apartments when Cal comes to Portland. Cal calls this temporary abode Café Central, and drinking coffee with Nando (Picasso drinks tea) leads to many discussions of Picasso’s case. In addition to his other enterprises, Nando is, Cal insists, the best private investigator he knows. It is either ironic or part of Easley’s wit that Nando helps Cal with the Baxter case but periodically reminds Cal that he will get a bill when Nando’s services are complete. These investigative services are not given for free and they do not come cheap. But at some point Cal’s own sense of decency kicks in and he is ready to put his hand in his own pocket if need be to help Picasso.
     The main characters in this book, Cal, Picasso, Anna, Nando, and even Archie, are the thematic centers of Matters of Doubt.  The praise Easley has received from reviewers of  his mystery tend to focus on Cal and sometimes Picasso. But some reviewers refer to the characters as a group, and there are many who are very colorful and interesting.  One is a man that seems to belong to Portland’s social world of the wealthy and privileged but proves to have a true conscience.  He and Cal are bedfellows in their pursuit of fly fishing, and this seemingly minor point in common will prove important to the plot.  There is also a recent Russian immigrant who is ordered by the bad guys to
 Russian immigrant who is ordered by the bad guys to hurt (but not kill) Cal to warn him off Picasso’s case.  Their street fight is recounted in detail, the kind of episode found in many crime novels in which it seems as if the protagonist cannot survive. But the scene also proves to be very funny, Easley’s twist on a familiar episode in mysteries. In the end the Russian proves to be Ferdinand the Bull.
     The plot and characters portray—to repeat—an ongoing confrontation between nature and civilization.  But to pursue this subject would require a separate essay and will receive one: look for “Nature and Civilization in Warren Easley’s Matters of Doubt.” Meanwhile the other characters in the book bring out different aspects of Cal as a warm but troubled person.  This endows him with a depth of being that, when added to his warm but troubled self creates a protagonist readers will want to follow through the series.

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