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The Alchemist’s Song

by David Wyn Roberts

In this first novel from David Wyn Roberts, The Globe and Mail’ s Manitoba bureau chief, the author draws on his Welsh heritage and his experiences working as a journalist around the world.

The Alchemist’s Song is a mystery about the quest of a jazz musician, Harry Holborn, and his lover, Grace, for the missing partner of a matched pair of ancient trumpets. After Harry dies mysteriously in Cairo, Grace is drawn into a murky world of double-crosses and industrial espionage.

Roberts has assembled all the necessary ingredients for a mystery: a death, characters who are not what they seem, exotic locales, and a question that must be answered before the whole thing is resolved. Together they constitute a good story that, apart from the occasionally abrupt introduction of some previously unknown characters, moves smoothly along to the conclusion. Roberts also includes some interesting background on alchemy and nicely illustrates the jazz musician’s subculture. It is not enough, however.

The main problem is that the writing often overwhelms the story, as in “a green venom had secreted from the trumpeter’s morbid psyche, soiling the squalid fabric of his thoughts and driving him to anesthesia.” Occasionally the prose borders on purple, “Hardman was as naturally torrid and luxuriant as a magnolia blossom.” At times this seems to be done deliberately for humorous effect, but it usually only serves to distract.

The pacing is also uneven. Segments of frantic story action are interspersed with long explanations of character and somewhat staged literary references. Sections such as the detailed description of a sweat lodge ceremony add little to the plot development.

The story idea in The Alchemist’s Song is strong, and in keeping with the current trend for historical elements in mystery novels. Unfortunately, the telling gets in the way.