The House of Love and Death (Cameron Winter Mysteries)
“Klavan’s writing ability and his intelligence show up on every page and make the ride worthwhile.”
As a professor specializing in the romantic poets of 18th and 19th century Europe, Cameron Winter can be absentminded and lonely, with only the beauty of Coleridge’s poetry for company.
But he’s also tough and practical, necessary attributes for his work as a hitman for a shadowy agency known as the Division.
In The House of Love and Death, Andrew Klavan’s latest Cameron Winter mystery, the story kicks off with Winter sitting in a coffee shop reading a newspaper story about an arson fire in Maidenvale, a wealthy Chicago suburb.
Three members of the Wasserman family and their nanny are dead, and police say all were shot prior to the fire. Only seven-year-old Bobby survived, when the maid lowered him out a third-floor window to safety.
The boy tells police he heard the voice of the killer, and it was his sister Lila’s boyfriend, Mateo Hernandez, now missing. But Cameron’s strange habit of mind, his striking ability to “see” crime scenes and decipher what happened, tells him Bobby is lying. Obsessed, the professor needs to find out why.
The story has echoes of Romeo and Juliet as the teenaged lovers Lila and Mateo rendezvous at the Fox Caverns, a hideaway where Lila reads Shakespeare to Mateo. He grew up in the Hollow, a rough neighborhood where the feds have been dumping illegal aliens who’ve recently crossed the border.
Mateo is sensitive, he writes poetry and sneaks into Lila’s neighborhood at night to throw rocks at her window. Could this boy with “romantic eyes” really be the killer?
Several factors complicate Winter’s hunt for answers. Mateo’s father runs a storage facility that has connections to a drug gang led by a deadly jefe known as Del Ray. A detective, enraged by Winters questions, orders him to leave town, and later, in a confrontation with the detective and Del Ray, blood is spilled.
The many plot elements at play here include a spy found dead in a Washington, DC, park, violent pornography, and a dean of student relations who can’t decide whether to fire Winter or sleep with him. There’s also a pedophilia angle and the periodic appearance of a shadowy Division character named Stan.
Winter is brave enough to deal with all of it. But he’s vulnerable, too, and a chronic noodler over complex moral issues. We see that side of him in his conversations with a therapist. She knows about his Division work and his cold assassination of an enemy named Snowstep, but it has little impact on how she feels about him.
She’s in love with him, and he her, even though Winter in his late-30s and Margaret is 67. No couch groping results, but their interaction opens the reader to a deeper understanding of Winter’s character.
Klavan clearly has fun showing his writing ability and wants us to dance along to his wordplay. He describes dead leaves that “tornadoed off the pavement in the wind,” and a woman is as “slender as cigarette smoke.” As Winter tours the burned-out house, “The murders move in the atmosphere like ghosts . . ..”
Those gems make it easy to forgive the times he goes too far, as when he says a man “gasped like a slave in chains.”
Klavan also draws hard lines around race and class. He has the detective say that if Mateo, against whom there is much anger, entered Maidenvale, he might be lynched. We learn from Lila’s mother’s diary that Lila finds it “very exotic and exciting” to date a Hispanic boy.
That’s behind the times. Residents of our modern suburbs deserve more credit. And when the killer is revealed, the motive is too thin.
But Klavan’s writing ability and his intelligence show up on every page and make the ride worthwhile. He’s created a hero we can root for.