Written in Fire and Fatal Elixir were two books starring Quinn Booker and Lobo Blacke, who were rather like Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe transported to the Old West. Unfortunately, DeAndrea’s untimely death prematurely terminated the series, and it’s a real shame: reading Fatal Elixir, I could only shake my head, dismayed as I read what might have been…
What we might have gotten was an intelligently written series told from the point of view of Quinn Booker, an Easterner who wrote Lobo Blacke’s memoirs for him, consequently gaining Blacke’s friendship and afterwards, a job. Blacke, a legendary lawman, is now crippled, and is obsessed with finding out who orchestrated the ambush that paralyzed him. He wants his revenge, and he has convinced himself an old friend of his, Lucius Jenkins, is the criminal mastermind in question. Lucius is the richest man in town and even has the sheriff, Asa Harlan, on his payroll. This is a tantalizing hint of what kind of overarching storyline we could have expected from the series: it began in Written in Fire and some unexpected developments barged their way into Fatal Elixir.
Fatal Elixir focuses on the miracle medicine of Ozono, sold by Dr. Herkimer, who travels from town to town selling the stuff and makes a lucrative profit out of it. But then, while staying in the town of Le Four, a batch of his elixir turns out to have been laced with arsenic! Naturally, it isn’t a typical ingredient in Herkimer’s medicine, who is just as shocked as anyone else to wake up with fourteen corpses on his conscience. Things get really interesting when some witnesses tell stories about a hooded figure sneaking away from Herkimer’s wagon before the doctor went in to mix up a special second batch of his medicine… Among those lying ill from the medicine is Asa Harlan, Le Four’s sheriff… and so, Quinn finds himself with the badge pinned to his chest, trying to uphold the law, prevent a mad lynching mob from getting Herkimer, and all while dealing with a crazy outlaw who might be coming to town to get his revenge on Lobo Blacke.
I was convinced that DeAndrea would pull off a twist that I was proud of myself for guessing so quickly… but I should have known better. (I am a mere foolish mortal, after all.) DeAndrea, as it turns out, didn’t even bother saving this possible solution for later in the book— it is the first alternative Blacke and Booker discuss! Clearly, DeAndrea didn’t underestimate his readers: just like in Killed on the Ice, he anticipates a twist ending and springs in on the reader by pointing it out, leaving them bewildered over whether he dare use that ending now.
All the while, this story is laced with a brilliant sense of humour, as Quinn Booker is very uncomfortable passing himself off as sheriff, considering himself a fraud in his own eyes. The combination of Western and mystery really works well— I’m convinced it could only be pulled off by a lover of both genres, which gives me yet another reason to like DeAndrea. And once again, DeAndrea inserts a thrilling gun confrontation into the mix— it’s an idea that seems to have fascinated him, and he pulled it off time and time again. It is every bit as exciting as the gun shootout in Written in Fire, with the added bonus of the scene taking place in an isolated area at dark.
There are only one or two clues pointing to the killer as the killer, and DeAndrea does a good job hiding them. Here is where he possibly improved on the work of Rex Stout, by keeping brilliant dialogue and sharp characters all while presenting a solid and fairly-clued plot in the Carr-Queen-Christie tradition. The one minor complaint I have is that there could have been one or two more conclusive pieces of evidence to point to X as the culprit. Though the case is convincing and fairly clued, you feel that a jury might not find it enough to put this person behind bars where they belong.
That being said, Fatal Elixir was a delight and yet somewhat depressing, as I realised that I would never be able to read a new Quinn Booker and Lobo Blacke mystery. Had DeAndrea lived longer, this series was destined for greatness— it was in no way a ploy to capitalise on the popularity of Nero Wolfe. The landscape of the modern mystery novel would be so much more cheerful with a DeAndrea to look forward to every year…