Wednesday, November 30, 2016

THE IRON ANGEL by Edward D. Hoch

The late Edward D. Hoch wrote close to a thousand short stories with over a dozen series characters, and this is one of the more intriguing. The detective in this one is Michael Vlado, a Romany (or gypsy) living in then-contemporary Romania, and halfway through the series he gets to deal with the realities of the collapse of Romania's Communist regime, something I'm sure Hoch didn't expect but probably relished.

Michael Vlado was born (as a literary character) in 1985 for an anthology entitled The Ethnic Detective, and later stories were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine sporadically until 2002. He's not quite the romantic vagabond mystical pulp-fiction gypsy we're so used to in B-movies, but part of a permanent village of Romany in modern-day Romania, and the series is firmly grounded in everyday life under the Ceausescu regime, which was no picnic.

That being said, Hoch does manage to fit in some genuine Gypsy lore and sometimes the stories do take a bend for the bizarre. The title story, "The Iron Angel," has Vlado called to Bucharest when an acquaintance (an American drifter introduced in an earlier story, a tragic character in search of something, anything to make her life whole) was the witness to the death of a gypsy, whose last words were "the three eyes of the iron angel." While it sounds supernatural and occult in nature, the ultimate solution is mundane, if a bit exotic.

And that's something that turns up a lot in this series. While the setting and some of the trappings may be exotic, human passions and evil are the same all over, and murder is still murder. "The Gypsy Treasure" does involve a treasure, of course, but also human greed. "The Murder of a Gypsy King" involves some esoterica of Romany tradition, but also the tragedy of a robbery for profit. "The Gypsy Delegate" involves the realities of post-communist Romania, when it seemed possible that the exiled King Michael might return to rule. "The Puzzle Garden" has a crumbling mansion with a weird garden and a possible treasure, but the old emotions of rage and greed still apply. And the last two stories in the collection, "The Starkworth Atrocity" and "A Wall Too High," directly address anti-Romany prejudice that still exists in Europe.

Hoch also shows his strength as a technician of plot, although not always the most gracious stylist. And given these stories were written over almost a quarter-century, you do see a certain evolution in his style as it goes along. The one thing that bugged me is that this is not a complete collection. There's a list of all the published Vlado stories in the back, and I supposed this is a best-of collection. I'd have appreciated a complete collection.

The Iron Angel is a great collection in two ways. It entertains with well-written mysteries with good plots, but also educates about a nation and a way of life that is alien to most of us. And let's be honest, I was a sucker for anything about a gypsy sleuth, and you likely will be too. Recommended.

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