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Robert Gubler
Fly in the Ointment
Kevin Swan is a wealthy, puckish free-thinker — disposed to kindly endeavors and droll antics for the amusement of his buds. On a lark, he purchases a remote, 97 year old manor, atop a heavily forested mountain outside Pasadena, California. In trademark reckless panache, Kevin conscripts a quarrelsome, sketchy crew to serve as house staff. In a rare moment of lucidity and harmony, the cadre arrive at a consensus — they have blundered into an unspeakable horror in which they have no business. Unfortunately … reality can be an unforgiving bitch.
Cooper’s twisty debut, the kickoff to a series, centers on the secrets of a sprawling mansion some 70 miles outside of Pasadena, recently purchased by Kevin Swan, the wealthy thirtysomething son of a SoCal shipping magnate. Kevin lives for martial arts, classic cars, hang gliding, and travel—he’s the owner/publisher of a magazine dedicated to it—and has vague plans of transforming the estate into a museum. But as soon as he tries to open the front door, he and his closest companion —his German Shepherd, a rescue named Princess—face uncanny strangeness, from a screen door blown into the upper boughs of a mighty cottonwood, to vile substances in a locked observatory, to a surprise library with titles like Necromancy: Pedigrees, Formulations, Analyses. Underhill, the local salt overseeing a rewiring project, warns him away from the central tower. Worst of all: Princess is acting up, even fighting with her human.

The novel is as sprawling and unpredictable as its subject, a mansion with more rooms and curiosities—like its bewildering abundance of cupboards—than Kevin can count. Hints come early about elements that might power the mysteries (a chance encounter with a beautiful woman in China years before; the Swan family’s connection to a cursed ancient knife), but even after Kevin brings some experts in supernatural weirdness, a Caltech prof and a “witch” named Spooky who’s “one fry short of a Happy Meal,” this chatty, discursive novel never resists a joke or charts a straightforward storytelling path. Kevin engages in patter comedy routines with his friends and a pair of unhoused day laborers, and his excursions via Harley, Jaguar, and 1950 Pontiac Chieftain are lovingly detailed.

Readers interested primarily in the mysteries will find the pacing slow, with the comedy clashing with the darker material. When horror elements take center stage (as in scenes of exploration or a setpiece séance) Cooper demonstrates wicked inventiveness and timing. He can spring a jolt, a gross-out, and a surprise.

Takeaway: Sprawling, surprisingly comic novel of a possibly haunted estate.

Comparable Titles: Grady Hendrix’s How to Sell a Haunted House, Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-