An Uncertain Currency is a murder mystery with a memorable crime-solving protagonist named Mario Castigliani, an Italian-born stage performer and psychic. Formerly a headline attraction in New York nightclubs, the over-the-hill mind reader has fallen on hard times. He arrives for a one-night performance in the small town of Floraville, Georgia, where an elderly black labor leader named Royal Washington has been discovered dead. The Floraville police department asks Castigliani to use his ESP abilities to help determine whether Washington committed suicide—the coroner’s theory—or was murdered, which is the opinion of the police chief.
Co-authored by Clyde Lynwood Sawyer, Jr. and Frances Witlin, the novel expertly delivers the traditional pleasures of a well-crafted whodunnit. Suspicious characters are vividly drawn with shady pasts and plausible motives for murder. There’s Jeff Pennington, the CEO of the textile mill where Royal Washington was a vocal union organizer and a thorn in the side of the company bosses. And what about Earl Langford, just paroled from prison, having been convicted years ago on the strength of Washington’s testimony in a Ku Klux Klan murder trial? The townspeople and their sordid relationships are evoked with the titillating and at times satiric quality of Southern Gothic melodrama, like a hybrid combination of Flannery O’Connor and the film In the Heat of the Night. Homosexuals, blacks, and foreigners are considered second-class citizens or worse by the narrow-minded locals.
The mythical town of Floraville, Georgia is brought to life with its own colorful history and landmarks. We’re told of the town’s founding in 1882, the harnessing of the Flint River to operate the mill, and of the General Textile Strike of 1934 (when ten-year-old Royal Washington was a courier for the union workers). Eccentric characters with names like Buster Culpepper and Jackson Sprague abound, as do restaurants with whimsical names like Eat-and-Run Diner and Big Bad Wolf Barbecue (“three plastic pigs, wet and glistening, danced on the roof”).
The authors made a risky and ambitious decision to devote six lengthy chapters to Mario Castigliani’s Italian childhood, his marriage, and his show business career in Europe and America. These flashback chapters are interspersed throughout the novel and might be viewed by some mainstream mystery fans as diluting the suspense of the central story line. But Mario is a wonderful character and much of the novel’s poetry is to be found in the flashbacks:
He was becoming fond of New York. He rode the subway whenever he could spare the ten-cent fare. He liked to stand at the window of the front car, bracing himself as the train roared through the tunnel. Ruby, emerald, and amber lights, jewels in the darkness, cast bands of color on the arches overhead. Mario watched for the less frequent lights of a deep blue-violet, his favorite color, which blossomed into sapphires on the velvet blackness as the train approached them.
There isn’t a lot of room for this splendid level of writing in the more hectic chapters that move the murder mystery forward.
The flashbacks add progressive layers of psychological complexity that increase our investment in Mario’s character. We learn the origin of his psychic skill, its limitations, and how this amazing talent sometimes abandons him altogether. His romance with Oriana, the illegitimate daughter of his family’s maid, is recounted with humor and warmth, eventually toppling unexpectedly into tragedy. Later in the novel, when Mario triumphantly performs his mind reading act for a Floraville audience, we’re cheering for him because we have a deeper understanding of his personal history and his reduced circumstances in life.
An Uncertain Currency isn’t entirely successful at escaping the mechanical trappings of the murder mystery genre. The final fifty pages seem overcrowded with plot contrivances and too many twists. But the remarkable Mario Castigliani breathes with a three-dimensional fullness that’s rare for literature of any stripe.
– Bob Wake