cover image To Play the Fool

To Play the Fool

Laurie R. King. St. Martin's Press, $21 (260pp) ISBN 978-0-312-11907-2

Like the holy fools whose purposes frame her latest modern mystery, King practices her own magic here, conjuring up, after a slowish start, an indelibly affecting narrative from unexpected material. The murder and botched cremation of a homeless man in Golden Gate Park draws police detective Kate Martinelli, introduced in the 1993 Edgar-winning A Grave Talent, into the world of San Francisco's homeless, whose views of reality differ radically from those of the police. Foremost in this cast is Brother Erasmus, a widely respected monk-like figure, part minister and part mime, who speaks only in quotations. Frustrated in trying to interview Erasmus, Kate gradually connects him to the ``cultivated lunacy'' of a modern Fools' movement which, begun in late-1960s England, disintegrated 15 years later in violence and death. As Erasmus becomes the focus of Kate's official suspicion and personal interest, she enlists, among others, the dean of the Graduate Theological Union at UC-Berkeley and her own invalid female lover, a psychotherapist, to help uncover Erasmus's identity and tragic past. The murder of a homeless woman, whose fitful, articulate intelligence is deftly captured here, brings fresh urgency to the case. The solution makes sure, inevitable sense in both the mundane and spiritual realms that King so thoroughly charts in this moving tale. (Feb.)