cover image Quit Monks or Die!

Quit Monks or Die!

Maxine Kumin. Story Line Press, $19.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-1-885266-77-4

Here's a genuine sleeper: a small book from a nonprofit literary press ostensibly about the subject of animal rights, which turns out to be one of the best mysteries of the year. Of course, it helps that Kumin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Up Country, 1973), as well as a novelist, essayist and writer of memorable children's books. This short novel bristles with richly developed characters. There's the Baranoff family: Dr. Hal, the brilliant but widely disliked director of a psychological research institute in a small town on the edge of Southern California's desert; his fraternal twin brother, Vance, a once promising novelist now living on his brother's reluctant charity while consoling Hal's wife, Susie; Hal's own teenage fraternal twins, Rachel and Reuben, both disturbed by their father's experiments involving the effects of separating monkey mothers and babies. Around them circle a resourceful old police chief, a dying cowboy and a determined graduate student who is both Hal's kinky mistress and the person who handles the details of his cruel experiments. ""Actually, she found acting out her daytime part more degrading than being a dominatrix,"" Kumin writes. ""Sadomasochistic sex play was only a game. Behavioral psych was the gateway to a career."" The plot is a masterpiece of construction: two kidnappings (one simian, one human) lead to two deaths (only one of which is obviously a murder). And while Kumin never actually misdirects, she doles out her essential pieces in such a fiendishly clever manner that not until the last few pages will even the sharpest readers be able to put the whole puzzle together. (Sept.)