(I never flag spoilers because it would be redundant: all of my reviews are full of them. In the case of The Blue Rose Trilogy, however, I need to be explicit. This series of reviews will absolutely ruin your experience of the novels if you read them beforehand. They are full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. You’ve been duly warned.)
This year is the 30th anniversary of the first Blue Rose novel, and I’ll be writing retrospectives for the trilogy: Koko (1988), Mystery (1990), and The Throat (1993). You won’t like these mysteries if you have little patience with slow plotting, digressions, and false leads, but you’ll love them if you’re rewarded by that sort of grinding realism on top of lengthy character examination.
Nor will this be your thing if you’re put off by the redundant techniques of metafiction. The Blue Rose novels are less concerned with the internal consistency of their narratives than with recreating the narratives in new settings and circumstances. We get a grim vision of Milwaukee in Koko, a fever-dream portrait of a Caribbean isle (Mill Walk) in Mystery, and the brutal canvass of an Illinois city (Millhaven) in The Throat. All three places stand for Milwaukee, alternate theaters where protagonists solve mysteries in the present by solving others in the past. The same evils abound. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. The ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible. Deep scars, and the question of healing. I cringe to think how much of the Blue Rose trilogy is based on events from the real Milwaukee where Straub grew up as a kid.
The story of Koko starts with the reunion of four Vietnam vets in the early ’80s. They believe a member of their old platoon (Tim Underhill) is killing people across Southeast Asia; the former lieutenant (Harry Beevers) is quite sure about this, since Underhill has been living in places like Singapore and Bangkok; the other three (Michael Poole, Conor Linklater, and Tina Pumo) can’t quite make the leap to convict Underhill, as they have fond memories of him. When they find him in Bangkok, they realize he’s innocent and become convinced the killer is Victor Spitalny, who went missing back in 1969 when he deserted the army. But while Spitalny was a sadist, he was also an ineffectual twit, and hard to imagine as an efficient serial killer driven by grand purpose. Finally the truth hits them. The killer is Manny Dengler, who was supposedly killed in 1969 when on R&R with Spitalny (indeed presumed to be killed by Spitalny), and a man they deeply admired. Koko is a mystery and psychological thriller about what creates a killer by ruining his soul.
As for the book’s title, Koko is the killer’s calling card and moniker. When Dengler kills his victims, he leaves playing cards in their mouths with his signature “Koko” scrawled on them, after cutting out their eyes and off their ears. Dengler has reinvented himself out of his childhood hero Babar the King. In that famous children’s book, the Song of the Elephants ends with “Ko ko ko”. To Dengler the elephant represents mercy in times of peace and wrath in times of war, a duality which feeds his child complex and homicidal urges.
Only astute readers will figure out that Koko is Dengler. You really have to be paying attention, because the narrative effectively establishes that Dengler is long dead and was deeply admired by his platoon. It also makes clear that Spitalny was a sadist who hated everyone; he’s the only logical candidate for Koko once Underhill is ruled out.
One clue comes in a novel written by Underhill, about a soldier misidentified because someone switched his dog-tag with another soldier. Dengler was inspired by the novel, and so when he killed Spitalny he put his own ID on him, then mutilated Spitalny’s body beyond recognition. This clue ties in with Dengler’s reverence for Underhill and why he impersonates Underhill when he lures journalists to kill them.
Another clue comes in chapter 22, when Koko has just killed Tina Pumo, and is getting ready to attack his girlfriend Maggie Lah:
When Pumo had opened the door and looked into Koko’s face, he had known, he had seen, he had understood. Angels walked him backwards up the stairs, angels backed him into his great glowing cave. Tears spilled from Koko’s eyes, for it was true that God did all things simultaneously (bold mine) and Koko’s heart overflowed for Pumo, who understood, who took flight, even as his soul took flight and sailed off, sailed home. The eyes, the ears, the Elephant Card in the mouth.
That kind of passage is easy to skim over as the mental derangements of a psychopath. The last part — the removing of Pumo’s eyes and ears, and stuffing the calling card in his mouth — grabs the reader more than the demented nonsense that proceeds. But the phrase “God did all things simultaneously” calls to mind the Vietnam flashback back in chapter 14, where Pumo remembers the death trap he and his platoon found themselves in for hours, as pressure mines exploded all around, ripping apart soldiers from crotch to chest. Pumo recalls a lot of craziness during that afternoon horror, including this bit from Dengler:
Pumo became aware that Dengler was beside him and grinning. “Don’t you think God does all things simultaneously?” (bold mine), Dengler asked him. “What?” Pumo asked. “What I like about that idea is that in a funny way it means that the universe actually created itself, which means that it goes on creating itself, get me? So destruction is part of this creation that goes on all the time. And on top of that is the real kicker, Pumo — destruction is the part of creation that we think is beautiful.” “Get fucked,” Pumo said. Now he understood what Dengler was doing: talking nonsense to wake him up and make him capable of acting.
The reader also assumes that it’s just nonsense Dengler was spouting. Most of the soldiers were saying or doing crazy shit in the flashback slaughter, and nothing in Dengler’s commentary suggests him to be the present-day serial killer — until chapters later, when you’re inside Koko’s head and he reflects upon God’s “simultaneous” actions. If you’ve paid and are still paying close attention. I’m a careful reader, but this is another clue I missed when I first read the novel.
A Tale of Two Families
The mystery of the killer’s identity is suspenseful, but there are deeper mysteries that make Koko more a psychological thriller. One is the war crime that haunts the vets. What exactly happened at Ia Thuc village, which called forth angry journalism and the court martial of Lieutenant Harry Beevers? Beevers, Spitalny, and Dengler went inside a cave, and when they came out, thirty Vietnamese children hiding inside were dead — all killed on Beevers’ orders. He remains proud of his deed, and even more proud for having been exonerated in the court martial, for in his words, “There are no children in war.” Spitalny and Dengler were scarred in different ways by the atrocity.
Which leads to the root mystery. What happened to Koko when he was a child that molded him into a serial killer triggered by the Vietnam horrors? The visits to the homes of Spitalny’s and Dengler’s parents are Koko’s best chapters (32 and 33). Both kids had terrible parents, terrible upbringings, but differently so. Spitalny’s mother is a doormat and his father a trash talker who projects his flaws onto his son. If I were Victor’s father I wouldn’t miss him either, but George Spitalny is no better. Straub is able to convey how pathetic George is in paragraphs like the following, where having no idea how to host guests in his home, he begins oogling Maggie Lah:
Poole watched George Spitalny leaning forward in his reclining chair, eating up Maggie Lah with his eyes. He had forgotten his wife and the two men. He felt great — he had a beer in one hand, and a girl who looked like Sex Incarnate was sitting on his living room couch. He was an awful man. He had burned Victor’s effects because of wounded narcissism. Poole felt an unexpected stab of pity for Victor Spitalny, growing up under the thumb of this vain, arrogant, inadequate man.
Yet for all the awfulness that runs in the Spitalny genes and environment, neither seems a likely breeding ground for a psychopath. Victor, like his father, was hollow and insecure, and not very smart; sadistic, but in a petty way; and certainly not disciplined. He’s the prime suspect for Koko because they can’t fathom anyone else… until they visit Dengler’s mother.
The visit with Helga Dengler involves one of the most creepy and disturbing verbal exchanges I’ve read in a work of fiction. She’s a cheerless fundie who loves citing the Bible, and drops these vague off-kilter comments to obscure information. Only later does a horrified Poole make sense of them:
- Everyone lied about us. No they didn’t. After Poole, Underhill, and Maggie Lah leave Helga’s home, they learn more about her husband’s trial and conviction from the Milwaukee library. Manny had been found by a social worker imprisoned in the meat locker of Karl’s butcher shop (“The Blood of the Lamb Butcher Shop”), bruised and half-conscious, clutching his favorite book Babar the King. Karl Dengler not only abused his son, but molested him since the age of six, and was justly sentenced to prison, where he died two years later. On top of that, Karl wasn’t just Manny’s foster father. He was his biological father who raped a Hispanic woman, whom he then probably killed since he considered her an inferior race.
- We kept that boy busy. An understatement. They raised Manny like a slave.
- He had to be put in chains. No matter what anyone said. Helga was being literal. Karl Dengler chained Manny up in the butcher shop as a disciplinary measure.
- Imagination has to be stopped. You have to put an end to it. Helga didn’t like Manny’s children’s books like Babar the King. For her, only Scripture was appropriate for the young mind.
Thus it begins to dawn on everyone that Manny Dengler, abused horribly as a child, is Koko, and that it was he who killed Victor Spitalny while on R&R back in ’69, not the other way around. Inspired by one of Underhill’s novels, he concealed Spitalny’s death by putting his military dog-tag on him. Dengler then mutilated Spitalny’s body so thoroughly that only the dog-tag could be used to (mis)identity the corpse as Dengler’s.
When Helga goes on about how Manny was lazy and in sore need of discipline, Poole wants to shake her and ask: Couldn’t you see what a gift he was to you? He and the other vets have such precious memories of Dengler (unlike the universally despised Spitalny) that it forces the cliche of whether serial killers are born or made. Koko implies the latter — that Dengler was molded into Koko by abusive parents — and is silent on the former. According to scientists, if you have the high-risk form of a gene that predisposes you to violence and were abused early in life, then your chances of a criminal life are relatively high, whereas if you have the high-risk gene but weren’t abused, there isn’t much risk. A genetic tendency towards violence plus an abusive childhood is the killer combination; serial killers are born and made. Manny Dengler was probably hostage to bad genes as much as to the hellish environments of his home and then later Vietnam.
Murder Vacation Services
The most graphically upsetting part of Koko comes not in the serial killings nor Vietnam flashbacks, but at the novel’s midpoint (chapter 20), where Conor, after searching for Tim Underhill in countless nightclubs across Bangkok, is taken to an underground bar where he witnesses a staged murder. Except that it’s not staged: the woman is beaten and killed under the calm gazes of men in business suits who savor the brutality while sipping booze. Conor runs out appalled.
Apparently this is based on a real-world business in Thailand that offers (or used to offer) “murder vacation” services. The customer pays a hefty price to torture and kill someone, or to watch it happen for a slightly lower price. Straub isn’t the only one who has been inspired by it; Eli Roth based his Hostel films on the premise. It could be an urban legend, but it wouldn’t surprise me if secret organizations like this exist in the world.
The chapter is a side plot that doesn’t result in getting any closer to Underhill or the real Koko, but it’s one hell of a tension builder, and an example of Straub’s ability to engage the reader with red herrings. The scene gave me a nightmare in which I was Conor, didn’t get out of the bar in time, and became the next stage victim. Seriously.
Straub’s best novel?
He thinks so, and I see his point. You can taste the sweat and tears that went into Koko. Every sentence feels constructed with anorexic care; the pacing is incredibly disciplined for a thriller; and the dialogue so realistic it’s like sitting in on real-life conversations. Straub was always good at this stuff, but he had seriously upped his game by this point in his career. The genre itself marked a maturing, since Koko was his breakaway from horror — out of Stephen King’s shadow and into a style of mystery completely on his own terms. He should be extremely proud of Koko. But the fact is that he did better in Mystery and The Throat. The plotting is even richer in those books, and they feature as leads Tom Pasmore and Tim Underhill, who are the best characters Straub has written. Koko is seen mostly through the eyes of Michael Poole — a solid character to be sure, but nothing like Pasmore or Underhill.
There are small but significant problems with Koko that prevent me from awarding it 5-stars. First are the chronological inconsistencies. Straub can’t seem to decide whether or not the Koko killings happened in 1981 or 1982. In chapter 1 we learn that the first killings happened soon after the Iranian hostages were released, in January-February ’81. Then in chapter 16, we are told the dates for those killings are January-February ’82. And when Poole, Linklater, and Beevers are in Singapore looking for Underhill in January the following year, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” has just been released (see chapter 15). That happened in January ’83, which supports the ’82 dates for the early Koko killings, rather than the ’81 dates.
Second is the problem of how Tim Underhill could have written his novel The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Underhill doesn’t become aware of this until he, Poole, and Maggie visit Helga Dengler in Milwaukee. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years before in the early ’70s? That question is later answered in The Throat, where we learn that the fifth Blue Rose killing represents a butcher from Illinois (Heinz Stenmitz) who molested Tim Underhill when he was a child, and which Tim has repressed memory of. But that leaves us with the impossible coincidence of two characters (Manny Dengler and Tim Underhill) who were in the same Vietnam unit, and had both been molested by different butchers (Karl Dengler and Heinz Stenmitz) who each ran his own meat shop — and on a street with the same name (Muffin Street) in different states! Straub’s metafiction techniques get away from him at times.
Third is the unlikely coincidence that Michael Poole and Maggie Lah, independently of one another, happen to be obsessed with the children’s book Babar the King, which was Manny Dengler’s favorite book as a child and inspired him to think of himself as “Koko”. At one point Maggie even recalls the Song of the Elephants:
Patali di rapato
Cromda cromda ripalo
Ko ko ko
Maggie doesn’t know at this point that the serial killer calls himself Koko, but it asks a lot of the reader that she would be ruminating over the one children’s book that “explains” the serial killer. Michael Poole, for his part, is also obsessed with Babar the King because his deceased son loved it, though he has forgotten about the “Ko ko ko” line.
Fourth and last, the novel could have used some editing. There are places where description goes on more than it needs to, for example when Poole is wandering the streets in Singapore, or Harry is scouting out New York City for a place to trap Koko. The slow paced technique usually works for Straub and sets him above the hacks who crank out cheap page-turners. Still, it can be overdone. In Mystery and The Throat Straub gets away with all his indulgences; in Koko I lost patience in a few places.
None of these weaknesses diminish Koko‘s excellence, but they are enough to make me demur from Straub’s claim that it’s his best work to date. It’s also worth noting — though this really isn’t a criticism — that the Blue Rose killings play a minimal role in Koko. They are mentioned only once, in Underhill’s novel The Divided Man, where to Poole they come across as a meditation on the Koko killings. But that’s rather impossible, since Underhill wrote the novel in the early ’70s, years before Koko started his homicidal campaign. In Mystery the Blue Rose killings relate to a series of murders under investigation, and in The Throat they are the main plot; in Koko the Blue Rose idea seems to be in gestation, and Straub unsure as to how he wanted to use those killings to interpret other events. It’s hard to even think of Koko, really, as a Blue Rose novel, or at least until you read the next two novels and see how everything intertwines. We’ll look at Mystery in the next retrospective.
Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5