March 23, 2006


The Nymphos of Rocky Flats. By Mario Acevedo. Rayo/HarperCollins. $13.95.

     There’s nothing particularly new about a supernaturally endowed detective anymore.  But a Hispanic vampire detective investigating an outbreak of nymphomania at a nuclear-fuel facility?  That’s new.  Unfortunately, a brief description makes The Nymphos of Rocky Flats sound better than it is.  First-time novelist Mario Acevedo has a lot of interesting elements here, but the superstructure on which he assembles them is almost unbearably creaky.

     A detective should have a tormented past, and Acevedo gives one to Felix Gomez in a terrifyingly chilling first chapter drawn from Acevedo’s own experience as an Army infantry and aviation officer and a veteran of the Desert Storm campaign in Iraq.  It is after a mind-numbing combat tragedy that Gomez is bitten by a vampire and becomes one himself – but, because of the nature of the tragedy, he cannot bear to drink human blood.

     At this point, the creakiness begins.  A reluctant vampire can make for interesting drama.  But the structure of this book makes vampires traditional in almost every way, including that of their predator-prey relationship with humans.  If vampires could sustain themselves, however imperfectly, with non-human blood – as Gomez is at pains to do – then why would they be so deeply hated and feared by humans for so many centuries?  Acevedo turns this plot point into an exploration of whether non-human blood may be insufficient to maintain Gomez’s vampiric powers – but really, the whole thing is a straw man (or straw vampire).  Extreme reluctance would have worked quite as well as refusal.

     Gomez has the vampire’s hypnotic powers – but his don’t work very well the first times we see him use them.  He is a creature of the night, with the ability to see auras and with super-keen senses – but he keeps falling victim to plots against him.  When that happens, Acevedo gives us pure Sam Spade scenes: “A stream of cayenne pepper spray splashed my face.  My eyes burned.  In the instant before I clamped them shut, I glimpsed the brilliant-red aura of my attacker.  I bent over, gagging, and rubbed my face to wipe away the searing liquid.  Something hard slammed into the back of my head.  My thoughts exploded into a thousand colored sparks that quickly dissolved into blackness.”

     This is potboiler stuff – and not even good potboiler stuff.  Gomez gets the nympho case because of his earlier successes, but this woebegone werewolf (sorry, vampire-wolf) is such a tyro that it’s hard to see how he survived to this point.  For example, he deliberately walks into a trap, knowing it is a trap both through vampire senses and because he has been told it is one; and the trappers, too dumb to make it hard for him to figure out how to get into the building where the trap is laid, simply leave a single way in; and Gomez, too dumb to look anywhere else, goes in exactly that way – and is, of course, trapped and tortured.  It’s an “oh, come on already” moment – one of many.

     Add to this the fact that Acevedo doesn’t always play fair with the reader – for instance, he gives no hint of the existence of supernatural beings other than vampires, but then Gomez goes to a party and, out of nowhere, a character of an entirely new sort shows up – and you have a recipe for a real clunker of a book.

     But The Nymphos of Rocky Flats is no clunker.  Thanks to good pacing, a wide variety of plot twists, an unusual assemblage of characters (although the reader never really cares about any of them, even Gomez, except in that highly dramatic first chapter), and a talent for getting his feckless hero in deeper and deeper every few pages, Acevedo delivers a book that is better than, analytically, it deserves to be.  It’s best not to analyze it at all, and to accept its absurdities, missteps and internal inconsistencies as those of a first-time novelist who is just gaining control of a potentially sprawling form.  There will surely be further adventures of Detective Felix Gomez to come.  They are likely to be better put together than this rather discombobulated first effort – which, however, has enough offbeat charm to be worth reading for its own sake.

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